MOVIE REVIEW: While We're Young



Folks, I have to come right out and warn you that this is going to be more of a blog post than a movie review, but it will count for both.  I just watched Noah Baumbach's new film "While We're Young" and I learned a lot about myself, but not all in a good way.  Through the title of this website, I say that "every movie has a lesson."  That's my hook and that's the lens I see movies with and I stand by it.  Seeing this film tonight was the kind of challenging and humbling experience I need as an amateur movie critic from time to time.

What I mean is there are very few movies that I don't "get" (be ready for constant air quotes on this idea for the next few hundred words). From the commercial to the obscure and across genres, I may not like everything, but I "get" them.  I feel that my school teacher lens that looks for life lessons always keeps me optimistic, in a way, for everything I see.  Every now and then, though, I encounter a good challenge that I may or may not truly "get."  It becomes a "to each their own" moment.  That's "While We're Young" for me.

I don't mean to make this all sound so provocative.  Watch the trailer.  "While We're Young" is harmless.  It's a catchy and approachable comedy with an intriguing mix of couples and their uniquely different relationship and life issues.  

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a pair of forty-something New Yorkers.  All of their friends have kids and they don't.  Their window for that has closed and they lack that drive.  They receive all of this peer pressure from missing out and are beginning to feel like out-of-place visitors to a club they're never going to be part of.  Josh and Cornelia are at peace with that and lean on this conceptual idea of freedom without kids as a means to think they can be spontaneous with their relationship.  In truth, they're both overburdened and over-scheduled working professionals that don't use any of that perceived freedom.  

Josh is a fledgling documentary filmmaker with a long-gestating and compass-less project that has already drained ten years of his time.  When he's not tinkering and fussing with that, he's a film professor.  One day, he strikes up a conversation after a lecture with Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple sitting in on his class.  Jamie gushes complements to Josh about his art, career, and take on documentary filmmaking and aspires to be a fellow documentarian.  The two couples end up sharing dinner that night and Josh becomes won over by these two.

Jamie and Darby are the penultimate hipsters that redefine kitschy.  In true movie fashion, they dial it to 12 with their quirky behaviors, tastes, dialogue, fashion sense, and character details that likely now feel like a stereotype to that demographic and label.  Every stitch of their charming randomness combines to look like effervescent purpose and energy to Josh and Cornelia.  Jamie and Darby invite them into that world and Josh and Cornelia begin to see their other friends less.  They develop a spontaneity and vibrancy they haven't felt in years.  

If "While We're Young" kept with that and stayed about the couples and their shared situations, the film would be much more, and rightly, transcendent as a fresh romantic comedy and thought-provoking entertainment entry.  Instead, the film begins to bog itself down and focus on a competing original documentary project from Jamie that bothers Josh.  He feels like the protege is stepping over the veteran and that artistic clash begins to unravel the good thing they have going as a pair of parallel couples.  Once that shift happens, the movie lost me and I cared less.

Here's the thing, though.  I had a hard time caring before that.  This is where this movie review turns into a blog post.  Let me tell you why.  I'm 35 years old and I'm a total square.  I play a film connoisseur on this website, but I'm far from an expert and even farther from a film snob.  I'm married with two children under three years old, starting a family almost a decade later than my peers.  I grew up as a gravel road farm kid from a small town, but didn't do any farming.  I loved comic books as a kid, but I never geek out and I don't play a single video game.  I went to small college instead of a big college and became a school teacher.  I live and work now in the huge city of Chicago but have never figured out city people or city ways.  I don't have cable and watch zero television programs.  When you come to the water cooler asking me about "Game of Thrones." "Breaking Bad," or "The Walking Dead," I hear about them by social osmosis through all of you on Facebook and have never seen a single episode.  Somewhere in the last decade, I stopped listening or carrying about popular music and listen to more oldies than anything else.  I don't know what "bae" means.  The list goes on and I could do this all night.

To sum it up, I'm the least capable of reviewing a film like "While We're Young" and, better yet, I am completely OK with that.  I'm fine being a square that is well on his way to being "get off my lawn" Clint Eastwood.  At the age of 35, I'm too old to be or get hipsters AND I'm too young and too middle class to know what upper crust New York people in their forties are like that have been married over ten years.  This film missed me on both ends.  Both couples were from different worlds.  I might as well have been watching a foreign film with subtitles because most references went straight over my head.  Therefore, I found no rooting interest in either couple and didn't gravitate to one side or another.  I thought it would be towards Stiller and Watts, but as a parent myself, I'm not them either.  None of it resonated and none of it felt important.

That begs the question: Do you need to relate closely to at least one movie character to enjoy a film?  No, I don't think that's a requirement.  As the square white guy, I can find complete fulfillment in anything from "Selma" to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."  Remember, my lens is the educational one.  What fulfills me is learning something and finding purpose in what I'm watching, even if it's more farcical than serious.

Because of the two niches I couldn't match, that's what makes "While We're Young" miss for me.  I "got" their tracks on aging, marriage, parenthood, vitality, and even the ethics and jargon on documentary filmmaking.  I still gathered life lessons to write about and reflect on, but what Baumbach and company found serious, I found farcical.  What they found farcical, I didn't "get."

LESSON #1: THE DO-IT-YOURSELF HIPSTER STARTER KIT-- Regardless of your age, "While We're Young" presents a wacky portrait of a hipster.  Hipsters aren't evil.  They're just young.  Something tells me, though, it's so overdone here that even a legitimate hipster, whatever that is, will watch this and either call it excessive and erroneously stupid or incredibly cooler and more inspiring than their own scene and become copycats.  According to the behavior of Jamie and Darby from this movie, here's what you need to look the part (in no order of importance): caged live animals within your residence that might be a pet or a future meal, an unexplained random roommate, reclaimed furniture you made yourself, VHS tapes, vintage clothes, outdated A/V equipment, an enormous and wide-ranging record collection, a signature hat that no one else has, no social media accounts, a penchant for organic foods and weird flavors, a lack of grounded morals or religious stance, flip-flopping political views, knowledge you stole off of YouTube while eschewing technology in general, and bevy of friends to share those things with.  Catch all that?  Yeah, me neither.  To each their own.

LESSON #2: THE PRINCIPLES OF DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING-- In another metaphorical plane that went over my head, apparently, the core values of documentary filmmaking are trust, objectivity, honesty, and ethics.  Anything created, staged, or manufactured for more entertainment value or appeal breaks those rules.  Good for them.


LESSON #4: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEING SUCCESS-ORIENTATED AND PROCESS-ORIENTATED-- Success-oriented people are your goal setters, benchmark measurers, and accolade collectors.  They work for the attainment.  That's the work ethic and thought process of most "old" people.  On the other end, process-orientated people enjoy the moment and don't care about the results.  They enjoy the journey and the diversions.  That's supposed to the your Millennial hipsters.  I think both old and young people can fall under both orientations and be just fine.

LESSON #5: DON'T BE JEALOUS OF OTHER COUPLES-- This goes in both directions in this film.  There's a part of Josh and Cornelia that is jealous and regretful for missing their window to have children with their friends.  That occurs until they see what stress and drama they're not having with being parents.  Also, there's a part of them that is very jealous of the real freedom and fun of the younger Jamie and Darby.  Josh and Cornelia begin to morph and live vicariously through their new younger friends, that is, until they realize what is their scene and what is not their scene.  In the end, couples of any age need to remember and realize why they chose the spouses they did.  Every marriage is different and every adventure and path that comes with that is different.  Chances are, you can look at your spouse and see perfection that doesn't need changing or anything to be jealous of others about.  If you don't like something act on it and change it together, not separately.