‘While We’re Young’ opens with title cards featuring dialogue from Ibsen’s ‘The Master Builder’. A conversation between Solness and Hilde. The middle-aged professional, stooping under the weight of his life, and the beautiful, wicked young siren who will lead him to his downfall.
If Noah Baumbach wishes us to carry this idea forward into his story, then Josh and Cornelia are our Solness. All lust for life, lost. They’ve forgotten how to enjoy the pursuit of their half-fulfilled objectives, and are now buried beneath them. Josh’s documentary, eight years in the making, remains unfinished. He can barely bring himself to look at it. They’re trapped in the shadow of Cornelia’s famous documentarian father, Leslie. Cornelia produces his films while Josh has never quite lived up to the mantle of Leslie’s ’protege’. Not helping matters, their best friends have just had a child and can speak of nothing else. They’re happy for them, of course; but nothing amplifies life’s metronome like watching your best friends play happy families while you forget the plot line to Goldilocks & the three bears.
Jamie and Darby are our Hilde. Married twentysomethings living the Brooklyn Renaissance dream. “They just make things, all the time!” Incorrigible, unjaded, filled with that youthful, malleable passion that can be redirected at a moment’s notice. They make ice cream, they make desks, they make documentaries. They have a record collection that should have taken three decades to amass. Their apartment is filled with “all the things we threw out, but they make it look cool”. Record players, typewriters, old projectors, books, vintage furniture.
While Cornelia and Josh are playing iPhone games and watching Netflix, Jamie and Darby smoke weed and cook and listen to old records. The young, steal our youth. While we’re constantly trying to keep up with the present, they’re building their future out of the wreckage of our pasts. And when we turn back to stare, it throws the even tenor of our lives into a tail spin that is as alluring as it is disorientating. If life’s a race, we hope it’s at least a straight one. But moments like this make us realise we’re running through a hall of mirrors.
The two couples become friends when Jamie, hoping to become a documentarian himself, sneaks into an evening class that Josh teaches. Josh sees in this young man a sort of selfless, boundless passion that he wishes desperately to rekindle, not just in his career, but in his relationship with Cornelia. Their flirtation with this youthful couple is not just for kicks. It is an honest attempt to burrow backwards into their own lives to work out where things started to go wrong. Or, rather, where things just stopped feeling “right”, and enjoyable for their own sake. Baumbach does an astounding job of making a ‘mid-life crisis’ seem less about foot-dragging and immaturity, and much more about the desperate attempt to right the wrongs of the past before it’s too late.
Ben Stiller creates an almost loveable character in Josh. Rounding off the edges of that misanthropic, wincing sarcasm, making it look more like pathos. Adam Driver channels Jamie effortlessly: the dopey, handsome over-confident shyster, masking a timidity that still shows in the eyes. Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried do their best to match up to their male counterparts, but they’re never given the time. Perhaps exhausted from the wonderfully nuanced and feminine ‘Frances Ha’, Baumbach has made a film here that is most certainly about men.
Josh buys a fedora and helps Jamie with his fledgling documentary project. Cornelia chooses hip hop dance classes over spending time with her maternal best friend. They sack off a weekend cookout in Connecticut with their middle-aged friends to attend an ayahuasca ceremony with a bunch of childish hipsters and hippies. But it can only ever be a flirtation. The more they discover about themselves, the more they realise it’s probably too late to change.
In order to regain our youth, we must see the world through young people’s eyes. And it is always a different world, with different morals, different attitudes, different neuroses. You cannot simply default back to 26-years-old. It’s not the crow’s feet that will give you away, it’s the lens you see the world through that is old.
And the more they discover about Jamie and Darby, the more they realise things may not be as they first appeared. Has Jamie masterminded their friendship from the beginning in order to gain their support for his documentary? Is Darby the sweetness and light she at first appeared to be? Is their young marriage as pure and impenetrable as they make out?
Baumbach’s latest film ambles along in this slightly hazy, directionless fashion from start to finish. It is to be applauded, really. He allows short bursts of impeccable, comedic filmmaking - with sharp editing, a masterful attention to pace, and wonderful performances - to build slowly in the midst of life’s whimsical funk. You never feel as if he is leading you anywhere in particular. His films do have an economy and discipline that makes 97 minutes slip by quickly, but they are well hidden. There will be moments where you begin to feel bored, but then before you know it you’re laughing again. And then, at some point, the lights come up, and you make your way out of the theatre with a grin and a furrowed brow. In that respect, it might almost be said that Baumbach does have a touch of Ibsen about him. It’s a very generous parallel, but if he wants it, I’ll give it to him.