'While We're Young' Review: A Hundred Cliches Carefully Rearranged to Make Something True
So much of While We’re Young is material we’ve seen before: the skewering of hipsterdom, a middle aged couple trying to find themselves, Ben Stiller trying to be young and cool. On the surface, there’s not much here that is new. But this movie isn’t trying to surprise you, at least not with its plot summary. It lets you know right from the get-go what it’s about, opening with a sequence of dialogue title cards from Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder. The text is between a man and his sexy fantasy almost-mistress, about his fears of young people and his refusal to open his (both literal and metaphorical) doors to let them in. And that, in a nutshell, is what this movie is really about: adults grappling coming to terms with the childhood, as viewed through an exciting youthful fantasy.
Josh and Cornelia are a couple in their mid-forties, who right off the bat let us know they’re very happy in their life, with their social life that consists of the occasional early dinner with one other couple, their lack of children, and the rest of their long-established routine. As they reminisce, it’s clear that everything good or important that they’ve done happened eight years ago, and they’ve just been coasting in that wake ever since. But they are happy enough, or at least they try very hard to convince themselves and each other and us of that fact. But when they meet a young, passionate couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, both the perfect narcissistic hipsters you hate to love to hate), they find themselves irresistibly swept up in their energy. Never mind the fact that Jamie and Darby are pretty insufferable, and completely entitled and self-absorbed— their narcissism is infectious. In typical hipster style, they’re obsessed with anything antiquated, which in turn makes the previous generation feel idolized, and ego-stroking is easily confused for genuine interest, even friendship.
Again, there are a lot of themes and montages and jokes in this movie that we’ve seen a hundred times before. But what writer/director Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale) does differently here is that he drives full force into those cliches and manages to give them a heart we don’t usually see. Take, for instance, that old overused gag of thrusting a person into an advanced Zumba or yoga or— in this case— hip hop class in order to watch them flail awkwardly. We’ve seen these time and time again:
So when Cornelia is dropped into this hip (hop) new scene, yes, it’s funny, but it’s also tired.
We know this joke. Just like we know this this couple and story. But the whole scene is turned on its head by the way Cornelia embraces her discomfort, dives into it, and then— most importantly— doesn’t drop the gag after the scene is done. Instead, she adopts what she learned (not so much about hip hop dance as about herself), and keeps it with her for the rest of the film (or, well, at least a few scenes). There’s something remarkable about watching characters who are so open to finding out something new about themselves. Baumbach treats these characters as friends— kindly, but honestly. (At least he does with Josh and Cornelia; Jamie and Darby are more like human props, but that kind of seems to be how they like it.) So what we are given here is a mix of over-the-top gags (a vomit-centric all night hallucinogenic party springs to mind) and there are some beautiful, as well as bitingly insightful, glimpses into the strangeness of both youth and adulthood. Yes, Baumbach is skewering hipsters, but he’s not letting the middle agers off the hook. One striking montage in particular cuts between the two couples’ lives in a way that beautifully shines a light on how strange everyone’s values are when you really look at them. This film is a presentation of interesting characters and questions and relationships, without any real answers. But clocking in at only 97 minutes, that’s actually enough. The movie is brief and beautiful and not boring, and jeez, wouldn’t it be nice if that trifecta weren’t such a rare thing?
Vivian Kane would also like to note that Charles Grodin and Maria Dizzia are perfection and should have their own sardonic New Yorker variety show together immediately.
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