Monday, December 23, 2019

While We're Young

WHILE WE’RE YOUNG                 B                    
USA  (97 mi)  2014 d:  Noah Baumbach                   Official site

He’s not evil, he’s just young.
─Josh Shrebnik (Ben Stiller)

The kids are getting older - - that feeling of the inevitability of aging seems to be on the mind of writer/director Noah Baumbach, once seen as one of the cooler heads in the business, whose ruthlessly satirical semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale (2005) remains his definitive film, one of the quintessential indie films of the modern era that seems to define our place in the struggle, where his films are snapshots of distinctively uncomfortable and often sad moments in our lives, drawn from his own personal experiences growing up in Brooklyn, where his characters are often going through life-changing moments.  Prone to disappointments, Baumbach’s films feature restless, anxiety-driven characters along the lines of Woody Allen, both known for their acidic wit, but are usually made for a fraction of the cost.  Baumbach’s films have a fun factor associated with them, also exquisite performances, where the audience is literally sharing intimate moments with the people onscreen, much like a theatrical experience, where you hang out for a brief period with a few fictional characters of his own creation, where his films, even his failures, are always time well spent, featuring ingeniously written dialogue of characters in flux, small gems of personal life experiences that reveal our tenuous connection to the constantly changing world around us.   Whatever Baumbach may be, he’s never boring, where the optimum word is usually clever.   Anyone remember the animated opening prologue sequence to Orson Welles’ THE TRIAL (1962), often described as the doorkeeper myth, The Trial: Before The Law - YouTube (2:45), an existential dilemma suggesting that from the outset we cannot escape the inevitability of our fate? 

“Before the Law stands a doorkeeper,” the story begins. “A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law.  But the doorkeeper says that he can’t grant him admittance now.  The man thinks it over and then asks if he’ll be able to enter later.  ‘It’s possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not now.’”

The doorkeeper warns the country man that three even more powerful (if unglimpsed) guards lie beyond him—the impenetrable layers of the bureaucracy.  The man waits forever, until his death, until the gatekeeper closes the door meant only for him, but which he can never enter.
In Baumbach’s film, it opens with a few lines from Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder, where Solness, an aging character, wonders aloud if he should “open the door” to the younger generation, anxious that they might “break in upon me” and seek “retribution.”  By the end of the film, we hear playing over the final credits Paul McCartney’s song “Let ‘Em In,” Let 'Em In Paul McCartney And Wings Lyrics Photodex ... (5:09):

Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Do me a favor, open the door and let ‘em in

An amusing stroll through a generational divide, the story concerns a couple in their forties Josh and Cornelia, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, seemingly at a crossroads in their life, still unsure of themselves as they’ve become creatures of routine, completely dependent upon instant access from the latest electronic gadgetry, though in denial about their approaching middle-age, where earlier dreams of success have eluded them, finding themselves at odds with most of their friends who are fast becoming parents, where the focus of their attention shifts to their children, leaving Josh and Cornelia on the outside looking in.  As a result, when the opportunity comes to hang out with a younger couple in their 20’s, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, a revelation, and the underutilized Amanda Seyfried), both are infused with a newfound energy from the younger generation’s more carefree lifestyle, finding it invigorating, much less pressure, and somewhat liberating to be youthful again.   Mirroring the director himself (who is age 45), Josh plays a 44-year old documentary filmmaker who has a strained relationship with success, having had some degree of earlier critical acclaim for his first film, but feels the daunting pressure of living under the shadow of Cornelia’s more acclaimed father (for whom she works), Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a Maysles or Wiseman style documentarian considered a legend in the field.  Still struggling for the past ten years with the shape and editing of a film he can’t seem to finish about the political, historical and militaristic connections of the last 50 years, (“It’s really about America!”), including a lengthy interview of aging, leftist intellectual Ira Mandelstam (Peter Yarrow, from Peter, Paul, and Mary), mimicking Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which also includes an interview with an aging intellectual, yet here the audience immediately senses Mandelstam is the most boring creature on earth, yet Josh refuses to cut any of his precious footage, leaving his film in an unwieldy state of seven hours long.  Making matter worse, his grant funding has run dry, leaving them precariously on the edge of financial difficulty, where he might be forced to swallow his pride and borrow money from his father-in-law, something that eats away at him, as if diminishing his own self-esteem or masculinity.  When he discovers Jamie is a budding filmmaker already familiar with his work, he’s not only flattered, but thinks perhaps he might be of some help offering an objective perspective, discussing many of the ideas on his film, but instead Josh gets sucked into Jamie’s first film project about reconnecting with a long lost friend on Facebook who turns out to be a suicidal war veteran.  While Josh sees himself more as a seasoned professional offering tutorial guidance and expertise, internally he wonders when he stopped being young and ambitious and instead began thinking of himself as something of a disappointment, where he’s been bogged down working on the same film for so long that he’s worried it may never get finished.  Little wonder, then, that he leaves his stagnant life behind and runs off with Jamie as his newly discovered best friend.  

Zany and hilariously “in-the-moment,” hanging out with the refreshingly different younger couple brings unforeseen energy into their lives.  Living in a warehouse loft apartment in Harlem that is surprisingly quant and authentic, the walls filled with vinyl records and furniture they built themselves, Cornelia notices with some surprise, “It’s like their apartment is full of stuff we threw out.”  Filled with the collected clutter of whatever appealed to them at the moment, Jamie seems interested in everything, always eager to try new things, where his idea of living is experiencing things as unfiltered as possible, playing board games instead of watching TV, where Darby makes organic ice cream in an assortment of specialty flavors.  Wearing T-shirts that say “Some crappy band,” or “Some college I didn’t go to,” Darby’s darker impulses include exploring empty subway tunnels or taking hip-hop dance classes with Cornelia, who can’t figure out the dance moves, asking quizzically “What kind of class is this?” while Josh and Jamie ride bikes through the city streets (which Josh cuts short due to arthritic knees) or go shopping for fedora hats, where Josh confesses, “Before we met the only two feelings I had left were ‘wistful’ and ‘disdainful.’”  When trying to recollect a pop reference, Josh instinctively pulls out his smartphone, but Jamie and Darby prefer the mystery of trying to remember without an electronic gadget that can find easy, readily available answers for you.  And if they can’t remember, then they simply move on to something else.  It’s reminiscent of an era of bringing electronic calculators into the classroom, where students were allowed to do all the calculating electronically, even on tests, where previous generations were forced to memorize all the formulas and do all their own calculations.  Curiously, inverting one’s expectations, it’s the “younger” couple that prefers the “older” challenge.  In a dinner scene with friends their same age, Josh and Cornelia, along with others, are all seen on their smartphones, where someone utters the rationalization, “It used to be rude, but now it’s accepted.”  Similarly, when Josh hears a song he hated when it was released in the 80’s but suddenly finds inspiring when heard again, Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” Lionel Richie - All Night Long (All Night) - YouTube (3:48), or the dreadfully overplayed ROCKY III (1982) theme song “Eye of the Tiger,” Survivor - Eye Of The Tiger - YouTube (4:10), he instantly recalls, “I remember when this song was just bad,” now suddenly being rediscovered by those hearing it for the first time.  This trip down memory lane, however, gets derailed when they decide to attend a spiritual cleansing that involves a fake shaman and hallucinogenic drugs, where the outcome grows more grotesque than absurd, where they’re obviously closing a moral line of questionable bad taste, where it also serves as a reminder of just what, exactly, have they gotten themselves into?  While always maintaining he was a purist, willing to spend ten years refusing to allow any phony commercialism to taint his movies, Josh always believed filmmaking was “capturing the truth of the experience.”  When he realizes Jamie’s work is an utter fraud and fabrication that conveniently accepts deceitful motives, staging events for real life and passing it off as truthful, for instance, Josh finds this an irreconcilable difference, a perversion of the truth.  While the film loses some of its sanity, with Ben Stiller having a meltdown and reverting to form as one of the more contemptible characters onscreen today, for further evidence, see Greenberg (2010), but Baumbach wrote the film especially for him while attempting to expose how what passes for the truth today is altogether different than previous generations, having been raised in an era of instant gratification where images are captured by cellphones and posted on Twitter or YouTube, where there is no longer an editing process, per se, but an immediate flood of public opinion that determines what’s essentially the truth.  This is a film that you want to like more, but it grows curiously weaker by the end, lost in its own ambiguity, where even the title feels somewhat lame, but overall it has more inventive charm and pizazz, even if it’s not altogether a success, than most other directors working today.  

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