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May 19/15

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: While We're Young (Movie)

While We’re Young (Movie) written and directed by Noah Baumbach; starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Matthew Maher, Peter Yarrow.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a married couple, in their early forties. Josh and Cornelia don’t have kids. Seems they’re not sure whether they want them or not at this point. They have to endure a lot of condescending, self-important talk from friends who have a new baby. But suddenly, Josh and Cornelia develop a friendship with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a married couple in their twenties.

It so happens that Jamie is a hopeful documentary filmmaker who seems to be inspired by Josh’s accomplishments in that field. Cornelia has her own credits in that department, having produced documentaries by her dad, a famous and successful filmmaker (Charles Grodin). But here’s the important thing – to Josh and Cornelia, Jamie and Darby seem so fresh, so free, so authentic, so genuine. I mean, look at how they can toss back and forth the "F- you!" expression in such a casual way. These younger folk ride bikes, they listen to lp’s, Jamie uses a typewriter rather than a wordprocessor. They invite the older couple to do freaky things like attending a so-called "beach party" on a Manhattan street (bathing suits, beach balls, etc) and walking on the tracks through subway tunnels. Through their association with these free spirits, Josh and Cornelia seem to be recapturing a youthful zest for life that they’ve been missing for a long time.

Up to this point, I’m thinking maybe it wasn’t such a good idea that the movie opened with some quotes from Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder. In lines that appear on screen (Wallace Shawn’s translation), we get Solness expressing his fear of opening himself up to young people. This reference to that classic of theatrical literature seems only to emphasize, by comparison, the shallowness and vapidity of While We’re Young. Sequences illustrating the contrast in the life styles of the two couples look like the kind of filler you get in silly comedies. These montages, and several others through the movie, are accompanied by peppy Vivaldi music, as if to add a whiff of class to the proceedings. And then there’s the episode where the younger couple persuades the older couple to accompany them on a druggy therapeutic binge supervised by a questionable Shaman. This prolonged episode involves predictable and boring falderal without making any interesting point. The movie does manage to hit a few valid notes of social satire – about the obsessiveness of new parents, for example, and the compulsive use of cell phones – but nothing especially noteworthy or original comes up.

Until an encounter between Josh and his wife’s dad, Leslie, the important documentarian. Trouble flares when Leslie expresses his frank and unflattering opinion of the film that Josh has been working on for eight years. The conflict escalates to the point that it touches on some intimate and private aspects of Josh’s marriage to Leslie’s daughter. Suddenly you get the feeling: Wow, we’ve got some real angst here! The movie is at last dealing with something that cuts to the heart.

From that point on, the movie is raising important questions, one of them being the differences in values as espoused by separate generations. And yet, the movie also gets more plotty - in that Josh twigs to the fact that what’s been going on around him isn’t what it seemed to be; he gradually uncovers a sort of scam. But the movie is meanwhile addressing issues about the creation of movies and other art forms. Is the creative process more about spontaneity and serendipity or is it more about control and planning? Does ambition trump integrity? While these are crucial subjects for some of us, I fear they may be too esoteric to hold viewers who, given the frivolous tone of the first part of the movie, might be expecting light-hearted comedy.

For those viewers who can hang in, however, Ben Stiller gives an intriguing portrayal of a man having to grapple with uncertainty in his sense of himself as he’s entering middle age. (In this respect, the movie is a bit like Birdman.) He has to ask himself hard questions about who he is and about his place in the world, especially as compared to the younger, more brash Jamie. It’s fascinating to watch Mr. Stiller’s face as he tries to look composed and polite, while his brain is processing bewildering and irritating input from other people. As in Greenberg, he is very good at showing a man who, while somewhat at odds with his surroundings, is trying to maintain his balance.

Another actor who conveys a certain uniqueness is Adam Driver in the role of Jamie. Not to get into invidious ratings of actors on scale of handsomeness, but there is nothing glamorous or starry about Mr. Driver; he looks like, and seems to be, the kind of guy who might be swimming against the stream. On the other hand, Charles Grodin provides the perfect note to the role of Leslie, the revered documentarian: satisfied, accomplished, content, a bit weary of it all but not so much that he doesn’t still show a touch of vanity and ego. Naomi Watts has an attractive way of capturing the ambivalence of a woman who’s leaving youthful freshness behind but isn’t quite ready to settle into middle-aged disgruntlement.

In spite of the fact that the movie doesn’t come off as an entirely successful package, there’s a lot to admire about the style of it. A certain kind of playfulness in the photography, for instance. Frequently, the camera shows you something that seems to give you one story but, a few seconds later, you realize you were mistakenly jumping to the most obvious conclusion. I also liked the fact that the ending is ambiguous. Just when you think everything has been decided, everything resolved, the final shot throws a question mark at you.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com