Saturday, May 2, 2015

"While We're Young"

 4 / 5 

In a particularly vulnerable moment, Josh, the documentary filmmaker played by Ben Stiller, tells his much younger protege, "Before I met you, I had two emotions: Wistfulness and disdain."  It's more than clever writing -- it's a sentiment that will feel uncomfortably real to the target audience for Noah Baumbach's insightful, warm-hearted While We're Young, which explores much more than a generation gap.

More urgently on its mind is an emotion gap, one into which many of us childless, (ulp) middle-aged children of the 1980s fall.  We're not old enough to be the wise adults -- or, as the film makes it clear, we don't want to be old enough to be that -- yet not young enough to have our whole lives before us.  We're as stalled in our careers and ambitions as Josh is with the documentary he's been working on for the better part of a decade, a thuddingly dull film so obtuse that even Josh doesn't know what it's about anymore.

Into the life he shares with his patient and equally uncertain wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) come the retro-bohemian twenty-somethings Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), free spirits if ever there were ones.  They eschew a digital life and favor books, board games and vinyl records: The very things Josh and Cornelia have thrown away are alchemized into useful objects once more, and Josh is enamored by their youthful enthusiasm.

Suddenly, Josh is wearing hats with brims, riding bikes instead of hopping in cabs, and turning his back on old friends, who begin casting wary eye at him for his middle-aged craziness.

Even more excitingly, Jamie thinks Josh's modest acclaim as a documentarian can help him with his own quest to enter the field, and in a heartbeat Josh feels something he hasn't felt in a long time: He's wanted.  Admired, even.  Hesitant at first, even Cornelia becomes smitten with the idea that maybe they aren't as old as they thought they were.

While We're Here is a final fresh and vibrant breath of maturity and adulthood before the multiplex is overrun with explosion-filled blockbusters.  It's made for grown-ups, and takes as much glee in being off-putting to youngsters as the latest Marvel film does in shutting out the old fogeys.

Baumbach covers a lot of territory in While We're Here, from the ethics of documentary filmmaking to the dread that greets the first diagnosis of arthritis.  (Josh's visit to a straight-shooting, humorless doctor is painfully funny.)  Charles Grodin, who at 80 is the embodiment of Baumbach's thesis that age does not diminish effectiveness in humans, plays an extended supporting role as Josh's father-in-law, a legendary documentary filmmaker whose own success was more hard-won than Josh imagines.

In a key scene, Josh rushes in to a Lincoln Center tribute to the old man.  Wearing an ill-fitting jacket and roller-blades, he recalls the panicked Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate, and has much of that younger character's heated emotion.  But the result is different here, and Josh's seemingly heroic pronouncements are met with tepid response.

Josh, it turns out, hasn't been aiming for success most of his life.  It was his goal once, until he learned more about the world, until he defined success in his own terms.  In While We're Young, he comes to the realization that he's never understood his own ambition, his own desires -- and it's just now, as his body starts to creak and groan and his hair starts to gray, that it's time to re-examine what's important to him.

It's that sudden realization, and the accompanying moment of self-reflection that many audience members are going to feel when it happens, that makes While We're Young more thrilling and more exciting than the latest super-hero movie.  For me, at least.  Then again, I might just be getting old.  And the most lovely thing about While We're Young is, it made me feel OK about that.

Viewed May 2, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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