Golden Years, by Josh Long
Noah Baumbach’s last film, Frances Ha, was my favorite that year, a wistful yet still funny examination of the aimless twenty-something artist trying to make it in New York. It is important to note, however, that that film was co-written with actual twenty-something Greta Gerwig. This time around on While We’re Young, Baumbach is writing alone, and approaches the same types of characters – only from the perspective of someone his own age.
At the start of the film, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are meeting their friends’ new baby (the scene plays out to a kind of baby-music box cover of Bowie’s “Golden Years,” which I’ll unashamedly admit is one of my favorite parts of the movie). Meeting the baby forces them to face the differences between themselves and many of their family-oriented friends who, like Josh and Cornelia, are in their early 40s. Just as they’re feeling like they don’t get people their age, enter Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young free-spirited couple who remind Josh and Cornelia of themselves at a younger age. It helps that Jamie, like Josh, is a documentarian, and has been inspired by Josh’s work. The combination of ego-stroking and vicarious living draws Josh in, and he becomes close friends with the young couple. Yet as the film progresses, we realize there are major differences not only in their life outlook, but also in their approach to their art. The differences necessary lead to conflict, which in turn lead to Josh and Cornelia examining what they really want out of life.
It’s interesting to look at the way Baumbach chooses to examine hipsterism. Jamie and Darby certainly earn that moniker, but it isn’t excessive. Jamie doesn’t ride a penny-farthing and wear a handlebar mustache. Instead the film explores hipsters as sort of New Bohemians. They live with a roommate in what looks like an abandoned warehouse. Darby’s job is making her own ice cream. They revel on media judged as “outdated.” They seem to be working to explore life from every angle, as much as possible, and always living in the moment. It’s easy to see why it’s tempting; the first act of the film really makes it look so. But of course, it’s too good to be true.
As the film moves forwards, Josh and Cornelia slowly come to the realization that Jamie and Darby don’t represent the coming of a new era. They simply represent the beginning of a new cycle. Josh wasn’t much different when he was young. He was ambitious, he thought differently from his elders, there was even a hint of rebellion. A rebellion that, though cleverly hidden, is also present in Jamie. Josh begins to find himself caught up in the frustration that people like Jamie are “using” his past, his generation’s history, co-opting it for themselves and wearing it as an eccentricity. A fascination with something completely separated from genuine enjoyment of the thing itself. It seems disingenuous to Josh, but maybe he couldn’t see this generation otherwise. The film ultimately asks if there will always be this tension between younger and older creatives.
On the part of pure speculation, I’m curious to wonder how much of this conflict comes from personal experience. Baumbach isn’t one to shy away from using his own past to explore a concept artistically – The Squid and the Whale is nearly autobiographical to the filmmaker’s childhood and family. So one might wonder if Baumbach, once seen as an indie film wunderkind himself, is wrestling with the success of the new batch. It may even be possible that Adam Driver is cast to represent in spirit his Girls co-star and creator, Lena Dunham. Dunham’s success and her protégé/heir apparent relationship with Whit Stillman might be the kind of thing that would irk Baumbach, who is heavily influenced by Stillman. Again, all conjecture, but interesting nonetheless.
The film isn’t perfect, and sadly it’s not as tight and consistent as Frances Ha (let’s keep our fingers crossed for Mistress America, his next collaboration with Gerwig). But it has the filmmaker’s distinctive flare, quick, clever dialogue, and sense of humor. Performances are great all around. Ben Stiller felt miscast in 2010’s Greenberg, but here he fits much more naturally into the world. Compare the party scenes in that film with the ones in While We’re Young – there’s a world of difference. Adam Driver lends a unique presence to the film (something he seems unable not to do), and keeps Jamie quirky without just being annoying. Also notable is Charles Grodin’s performance as Josh’s father-in-law. In representing the generation of filmmakers to precede Josh’s, Grodin brings a frustration mixed with a sensitivity that makes for a fascinating character, maybe the film’s best performance.
All in all, it’s a solid film from indie veteran Baumbach, and one that shouldn’t leave his fans disappointed. Best of all, it shows him as a filmmaker who, though he may be frustrated with his predecessors, wants to understand and sympathize with them.