Saturday, April 11, 2015

Review: "While We're Young" Explores Nostalgia and Aging in the Best Ways Possible

Left to right: Ben Stiller and Adam Driver
It is tough to get old. It isn't just the responsibility or the failing body that is tough. It's the notion of relevance that one must accept in the process or deem himself forever foolish. It is a subject that has created a subgenre of film trying to plant adults as relevant members of society. However, the unfortunate truth is that no matter what happens, there will always be the fear of irrelevancy, whether socially or personally. In director Noah Baumbach's latest While We're Young, he tackles the subject not with the typical affirmation, but the humbling humor of realizing just how silly you'd look in a hipster hat and attending strange spiritual rituals. It may not seem like it, but this is the study of aging from infancy to elderly age as best embodied in a bohemian city. It may be funny, but it's also painfully honest.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are first seen in the film overlooking an infant baby as a childish recording of David Bowie's "Golden Years" plays. As the child cries, they begin to panic until it is revealed that the real parent Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) knows what to do. He is accepting of his old age. Josh and Cornelia are not no matter how much they try to spend time with their friends with kids. Upon Josh, who is a documentarian, running into Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) in his class, the couple that is 19 years their senior decides to embrace the youth of the hipster couple. As the film progresses, it unveils a deeper complexion about naivety and nostalgia. By the end, we finally hear "Golden Years" playing as it was intended to hear. Josh and Cornelia have accepted their maturity after a long and embarrassing routine that at times feels like vicarious living.

For a comedy that initially starts off as an odd couple pairing, the film evolves into a complex series of moments. The younger couple is obsessed with outdated culture. The older couple is obsessed with being relevant. One is being true to themselves while the other is hopelessly trying to fulfill a lie. Both have their mentors that are decades older and have achieved what they consider success. It is an intertwining series of ideals placed upon couples who need to establish relevance in their societal placements. It isn't easy and as the film explores, there's plenty of awkwardness to go around. Hidden in these moments is truth about who we all are. Some are meant for families while others careers. It is only in putting aside jealousy and paranoia that we can truly achieve these goals. 

Most of all, this feels like a showcase for Adam Driver, who plays a 25-year-old documentarian with a peculiar routine of making his projects. He is a self-defined hipster and has a Rocky III poster on his wall. While the hipster culture may grow to be overtly obnoxious, which it does, it is his performance that gives the film a more complicated heart. From his subtle movements such as how he holds a glass or gives Josh playful names, he feels carefree and unaware of any pretentious traits he may carry. If you are into obscure art, he may be a decent guy. Otherwise, he's somewhat of a nuisance. Thankfully Driver finds a middle ground and while the film revels in a third act sabotage, it never feels as despicable as it is meant to. This is the actor's best performance in his short career and reflects his ability to be odd without being repulsive. Even his chemistry with Ben Stiller, who is by every means the grouch of the film, has a playfulness to it that makes you understand the appeal of being young and ignorant. 

There may be too many ideals shoved into the film and the resolution may feel a little rushed. However, Baumbach is a master director who knows how to pack subtlety into a film. He gives former Beastie Boys member Adam Horovitz the moment of zen in a great against type role. He cuts between speeches of elderly documentarian Mr. Breitbart (Charles Grodin) and the feuding Josh and Jamie. Their points overlap and various other edits reflect the similarities in unlikely themes. Even the soundtrack, which repurposes Notorious B.I.G. into the catalyst for Cornelia's youthful ways, has a purpose. It helps to paint a suburban expose on how generations relate to another and how inevitably each one will evolve into the next. There's a cyclical format to its characters that make them both exclusive and identical. The third act may become a little too heavy handed, but otherwise it is an extraordinarily handled tale.

The film's biggest success is that it never lets on its intentions. Much like its characters, it stays in denial and forces the audience to determine who the true hero is; an odd prospect given the lightweight nature of its premise. Even then, there's too many small character moments and events that are too true to ever not feel relative. It is a journey into life unlike most of its kind. It may get weighed down too much in ambition, but it still has enough moments to shine. While We're Young is a film whose title is both fleeting nostalgia and a cry for help. It wants the viewer to assess relationships between the young and old while evaluating their own life choices. For some, it is to be a respected documentarian. To others, it's being a hipster or a parent. The only question left as Bowie ushers out the film is what will you do to feel relevant not to society, but to yourself.

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