Friday, August 7, 2015

While We’re Young: Do Not Go Gentle into Middle Age

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in While We're Young

Noah Baumbach’s early comedies, Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, were so fresh in the writing that the deficiencies in the filmmaking didn’t seem important (Baumbach both wrote and directed); they were like minimalist movie versions of terrific little plays, performed with brio by casts of talented young actors. Kicking and Screaming reworked territory – the reluctance of young men to grow up and enter the world – that had been famously inhabited by earlier directors, notably Fellini in I Vitelloni and Barry Levinson in Diner (which was his own version of I Vitelloni), but Baumbach’s loose, gabby approach made it feel like a series of explosively funny bull sessions. And I’d never seen anything precisely like Mr. Jealousy, where Eric Stoltz becomes so obsessed with his girl friend’s past relationship with a hip novelist that he joins the novelist’s therapy group. Almost two decades after seeing Mr. Jealousy, I can still run scenes through my mind and chuckle over them.

These movies had an affable scruffiness, and they didn’t garner much attention. But when Baumbach turned to his own parents’ divorce as inspiration for the 2005 The Squid and the Whale, he officially became an art-house filmmaker. The Squid and the Whale is like a much more savage version of a late-seventies Woody Allen movie (though it’s set later, in the mid-eighties). It’s also a coming-of-age story in which Walt, the character Baumbach based on his adolescent self (played by then-newcomer Jesse Eisenberg), moves from aping the ideas of his powerful father (Jeff Daniels), to whom he’s helplessly in thrall, to seeing his faults and admitting the validity of another point of view – that of his mother (Laura Linney).

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

This portrayal of a narcissist and his destructive influence on his son is made with astonishing confidence, even bravado, and there’s a razor sharpness to the performances, including that of Owen Kline as the protagonist’s twelve-year-old brother, who chooses an alternate hero: his tennis coach (William Baldwin), who begins to sleep with their mother after their parents split. (Good as Eisenberg is as the hamstrung sixteen-year-old who can’t define himself outside his father’s shadow, the kid brother, Frank, who is as stubborn as his father and isn’t squeamish about squaring off with him, is the more interesting of the two boys, perhaps because in order to write the part Baumbach didn’t have to figure out a way to dramatize himself.) The movie is much more ambitious than Baumbach’s previous ones, and it’s not fully worked through in psychological terms – and I’m talking here about the filmmaker’s psychology, not Walt’s. His depiction of the characters who are fictionalized versions of his parents is imbalanced. The father, Bernard, is a monster who uses Walt to feed his own ego while the mother, Joan, is compassionate and truly worried about what’s happening with her sons, and she only rarely makes the mistake of putting them in the middle of her ongoing dispute with her husband – which he has no hesitation about doing. The movie presents her extramarital adventures as desperate attempts to deal with her unhappiness in the marriage, and though it wouldn’t take much to see her romance with the tennis coach as more of a swing away from Bernard than a relationship of any substance (especially since the role isn’t much more than a caricature), the movie shies away from suggesting it. It isn’t that Bernard is an implausible father figure; we’ve all met men like him, and Daniels, in a big, bushy beard, makes his blustering and pretentiousness and dunderhead insensitivity both horrifying and extremely entertaining. But Joan is so sympathetic that the entire movie feels weighed in her favor, and since Walt is so devoted to his self-centered, overbearing father and so unkind to her, it feels like a compensation – Baumbach’s public acknowledgement of his adolescent misjudgment. And all this jockeying to soften the mother’s character makes some of the movie feel rigged and untrustworthy, for all its obvious virtues.

Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried

Baumbach’s latest film, While We’re Young, which was released in the spring (and is now out on DVD), has a similar problem: it gives the impression of having been worked over too much (in the last third) in an effort to be fair-minded, and the labor has the effect of shaking your confidence in its point of view somewhat. But it’s less of an obstacle in While We’re Young because Baumbach doesn’t appear to be working anything out. At its best the movie made me think of Paul Mazursky – a high compliment; I had a great time watching it, and Ben Stiller’s performance as Josh, the self-serious mid-forties documentary filmmaker, mired in a ten-year-old project he can’t seem to complete, is almost the best acting he’s ever done. (I say “almost” because it doesn’t quite trump his work in his own marvelous film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty two years ago.) Baumbach got off track after The Squid and the Whale; his next film, Margot at the Wedding, was rancid and repugnant, and watching the one after it, Greenberg, I felt so far outside the protagonist (Stiller) that I lost interest long before the end. But in his 2014 comedy Frances Ha, with Greta Gerwig as a young woman in her twenties whose life unravels after she and her best pal from Vassar go their separate ways, he returned to his old, engaging self, though the movie had a very different tone than anything else he’d done, a sort of scratchy softness, funny and unsettling and poignant in a way that seemed to come directly from the protagonist – as if he were simply chronicling her story. (As Amanda Shubert pointed out in her review for this website, Baumbach had clearly been inspired by the early Truffaut pictures.)

While We’re Young is distinctly the work of a filmmaker who’s made the leap to middle age; it’s possible to see it as a kind of farther-down-the-line companion piece to Kicking and Screaming. Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts, in a rare comic role that allows her to relax) are in a bind. Josh’s movie is an increasingly unwieldy exploration of the work of a prickly, ornery philosopher and political scientist (played, in a brilliant casting stroke, by the singer Peter Yarrow); he keeps accumulating more and more footage, and though he knows he can’t release a six-hour documentary, he’s so buried in the material he can’t figure out what to cut. (He’s a little like the novelist Michael Douglas plays in Wonder Boys, whose massive new tome is a metaphor for his indecisiveness about his own life. In Josh’s case the movie is a physical embodiment of his inability to find a direction in his.) Plus Josh’s grant money is running out, and he can’t pay his cameraman (Matt Maher, one of the actors in the off-Broadway success The Flick). Josh feels competitive with his father-in-law Leslie (Charles Grodin), a celebrated documentary filmmaker by whom he feels continually judged, though the truth is that Leslie feels affectionate toward his daughter’s husband and puzzled and wearied by his insistence on playing out some Oedipal struggle with him. Josh’s professional struggle isn’t his only problem. He and Cornelia have given up trying to have kids, so when their best friends, Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia), become parents and their lives start to revolve around kid concerns and activities, Josh and Cornelia feel sidelined. (There’s a hilarious scene in which Cornelia, running into Marina in the street with two other new moms, invites herself along to a concert for toddlers and ducks out because she thinks she’s about to lose her mind.) So when they meet a young documentarian named Jamie (Adam Driver), who idolizes Josh, and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), they find themselves swept along by their energy and curiosity and hipness. Jamie and Darby view the world as a collage of cultural possibilities, and the fact that they don’t differentiate between them strikes Josh and Cornelia as bracingly democratic rather than kitschy and superficial. (When Jamie plays “Eye of the Tiger” on his iPod, Josh comments with somewhat befuddled admiration that he remembers when the song was just considered bad.) Josh in particular is blinded by Jamie’s charm and humility; he doesn’t realize that the humility is both a style and a ploy that masks a hungry ambition. Soon Josh and Cornelia are coming along to hallucinogen-dusted spiritual retreats – that’s the most Mazursky-like episode – and Josh, stirred by what he misreads as Jamie’s generosity of spirit, is volunteering his time gratis to shoot Jamie’s movie.

Ben Stiller and Adam Driver embrace the hat

The more embroiled they get with their new friends’ lifestyle, the funnier the movie gets. Most of us have been smitten at some time in our lives (usually, but not always, particularly vulnerable ones) by new acquaintances who put us in false positions when we try to emulate them – as when Josh buys a straw hat like Jamie’s and Cornelia practices hip-hop moves in the kitchen after she’s tried out a class with Darby. But when they try their borrowed affectations out on each other, all they do is produce discomfort: when Cornelia calls him “Joshie,” Jamie’s nickname for him, Josh balks at being addressed in that way, and when Josh says “Fuck you” to Cornelia, Darby’s reflex way of telling off her husband, Cornelia objects that they don’t talk that way to each other and she detects the hostility underneath what Josh pretends is just jocularity. This conversation, which quickly deteriorates into a quarrel, takes place after Josh has begun, at last, to see Jamie more clearly and blames both himself and Cornelia for being duped by him.

Baumbach isn’t naturally generous like Mazursky; though Driver’s performance is irresistibly funny, Baumbach wants us to see that Jamie is a fraud. (Darby, who sees through her own husband and doesn’t always like him, is more complicated.) But he doesn’t want to turn While We’re Young into a fable with Josh as the uncompromising hero who balks as soon as he spots Jamie’s inauthenticity – it turns out that he’s rigged his doc – so he has the Fred Wiseman-like documentarian Leslie, of all people, defend Jamie’s work on the grounds that the part he’s faked isn’t what the movie is really about. I didn’t buy it, not because I think it’s impossible for a documentary filmmaker to invent a new set of rules (that’s roughly Leslie’s argument about Jamie) but because it feels like Baumbach’s way to avoid moralizing about Jamie and making Josh – and himself – look like fogeys with a bone to pick with the hipper younger generation. What makes the movie more convincingly fair-minded is its layered portrayal of Josh, who’s so adamant about not compromising that he’s stopped being able to produce anything and who is so self-absorbed that he can’t see any decency in his father-in-law. (Grodin is simply wonderful as Leslie.) In the climactic scene, he arrives late at a tribute for Leslie because he’s been so set on proving that Jamie is dishonest that he forgot all about it; since Jamie is at the tribute, Josh uses the opportunity to try to expose him. “This evening is kind of about me,” Leslie remarks quietly, but despite the inappropriateness of his son-in-law’s behavior, when he sees what a wreck Josh is, his fondness and concern for him are more important than his irritation.

Naomi Watts tries out hip-hop class.

Baumbach is getting better and better as a director, and he’s a gifted comic writer. (He’s also prolific: he has another picture coming out this fall.) From the first he’s shown himself to be very skillful with actors, and he casts superbly. I liked everyone in this movie, including Horovitz and Dizzia, whose performances are so understated that they’re in danger of being overlooked. The characters of Fletcher and Marina are vital to Baumbach’s portrayal of the moment when people who have always thought of themselves as young have to confront the idea that you’re really middle-aged once you reach your forties. Baumbach doesn’t simply use these two as a device, a requisite contrast to the influence of Jamie and Darby; they’re having their own problem with aging. Cornelia and Marina call each other “fox”; it’s an old joke, but when Marina uses it now, you can hear in Dizzia’s almost quizzical tone that she knows the term doesn’t fit any more. The two couples have become somewhat estranged (less because Cornelia and Josh don’t enjoy spending time with their friends any more than because Marina and Fletcher feel they’ve been tossed aside for newer models), but when Josh and Cornelia fight and he doesn’t want to come home, he naturally turns to Fletcher to put him up for the night. They have a lovely little scene together where Fletcher admits that he doesn’t feel his life has changed as dramatically with the arrival of their child as he’d hoped – that he hasn’t been able to ditch his own narcissistic impulses. While We’re Young has its flaws but it’s smarter and more affecting than any other comedy I’ve seen this year.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment