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There is much to like in writer/ director Noah Baumbach’s musing on growing older, though not necessarily wiser, in his new film While We’re Young.
It’s almost never less than entertaining. And it’s a technically solid piece of work. Baumbach, as a director, feels fully in control of the how the movie looks. As a writer, the characters are often very well drawn and the dialog has a nice rhythmic feel to it, a sort of stylized realism of people from an intellectual background.
At the same time, I’m not sure the movie really comes together as a whole in a fully satisfactory manner. For me, the story itself seemed to flounder at times as it was trying to figure out just what is was supposed to be about.
Overall, my feelings were often those of puzzlement. Is While We’re Young a modern day version of All About Eve that constantly gets off subject, or is it a generation gap morality tale that Baumbach had difficulty finding a strong structure for and sorta, kinda tried to fit it into that of the great film by Joseph L. Mankiewicz?
In the end, I felt it was two different films with two different through lines that Baumbach could never quite marry together.
The basic plot revolves around a documentary filmmaker, Josh, who has had one well respected movie, but has never been able to follow up on it and is now stuck and is unable to complete his most recent project for a number of years now.
His struggle is aggravated by his marriage to Cornelia, who works for her father, Leslie, a documentary filmmaker of world renown. Josh can’t bring himself to seek help from his father-in-law, feeling that he will be judged unfairly for it.
One day he meets Jamie, an up and coming documentarian, and Jamie’s wife Darby. Josh and Cornelia are starting to feel as if their life is stagnating, so when they meet this young couple who are poster children for hipsters (Josh doesn’t use facebook, wears wing tips without socks, uses a typewriter, has a rooster as a pet, and owns an LP collection that covers one gigantic wall of their huge warehouse type apartment space), Josh and Cornelia become intrigued and start rethinking their own lives.
(As a side note, one of the few things that Baumbach never explains, and for some reason no one ever asks, is just how Jamie and Darby can afford everything they have—I mean, it takes a lot of non-hipsterish money to be this hip, believe you me.)
As the two couples interact, Josh and Cornelia start loosening up and trying new things, like hip hop dancing, a spiritual drug taking that results in vomiting to cleanse your soul, and sex during the day—actually, sex at all.
But this section of the movie also reveals part of why I think the movie doesn’t quite work.
Josh and Cornelia aren’t just floundering because they’re life has stopped going anywhere. All their friends (rather belatedly to be totally believable, it seems to me) suddenly start having babies. But in many ways, these friends are pretty horrible people.
Cornelia has had two miscarriages and is terrified of trying again, it was so painful before. And the older she gets, the more dangerous it becomes. Yet, while fully knowing this, their friends keep encouraging Josh and Cornelia to have kids while throwing their own progeny in their faces.
And so everyone here starts drifting apart, culminating in an incredibly convenient plot contrivance where Josh and Cornelia just happen to drop by their friends the night they are given a huge party. And not only did this couple not invite their childless friends, they have the gall to blame Josh and Cornelia for them not doing so.
I just didn’t find this believable. A small sit down dinner, sure, but a huge party like this?—sorry, I just didn’t buy it, and I often felt that Baumbach tended to manipulate the plot a bit too much as it feels like he does here to make his point rather than to have things play out in a more realistic way.
So this through line just never really clicked for me. And it seemed to have so little to with the Jamie and Darby conflict, except maybe to give the whole thing a more anti-feminist slant (while Josh’s life is stagnating because he can’t give birth to his baby, his film, Cornelia is stagnating because she can’t give birth at all). In a similar way, the character of Darby also doesn’t seem to have much more of a purpose in the film than Cornelia does; she doesn’t really have an existence or reality of her own, she’s just there to support her man.
At any rate, while all this is going on, it is slowly revealed, little by little (and often rather cleverly) that Jamie is not the open-hearted hipster that he at first claimed to be. He is actually a near sociopath who will use anyone to get what he wants.
However, I found this part of the film difficult to follow. It goes down what to me feels like a rather over complicated road as Jamie maneuvers events not just to get Josh’s help, but to use Josh to get to Leslie.
But the machinations here are so byzantine, I felt that what was happening is what in the industry is called killing a flea with an elephant. And it seemed unnecessary. Early on, through Josh, Jamie does meet Leslie. And at that point, Jamie no longer needs Josh, so it was a bit unclear to me not just why Jamie kept him around, but went to such convoluted methods to do so. So at this point, I got lost.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t indeed hold together. It may very well do so, but I’m just saying that I couldn’t really put all the pieces together myself. For those of you who can, this section of the film will probably work much better for you.
It all leads up to an intellectual argument that Josh and Jamie have in the foyer of an auditorium during a gathering in which Leslie is receiving an award. I have to be honest here, I couldn’t follow this back and forth at all. I had no idea what either of them were talking about.
It makes more sense when the two get everyone else involved in their discussion and the point is made that Jamie was not entirely factual in all aspects of filming his documentary. The problem here is that I know I should be outraged like Josh is, that that’s what Baumbach wants me to be, but the way this conflict was played out and within the context here, I sort of agreed with everyone else: that Josh is making a big deal out of very little.
At this point, Baumbach gives Josh one of those monologues in which the older generation castigates the youth. I’d summarize it, but it’s basically the same one every older generation has given every younger generation since time began and that Josh probably got from his elders when he was Jamie’s age.
And it’s hard to take Josh as seriously as Baumbach may want since Josh seems to be upholding his work as a documentary filmmaker as superior to Jamie’s, except that Josh doesn’t have a film. He has a lot of material, but he has no idea what it is about, shown in a very funny, but also sad pair of scenes, in which Josh is totally unable to explain his film to an investor or take suggestions from his father-in-law (which is the real reason why he can’t finish the film, not because of middle-age stagnation or moral superiority).
The resolution was also a bit of a disappointment to me. Instead of Josh and Cornelia taking what they learned and let it transform their lives in new ways, they reconcile with their friends (believe me, I would not be so forgiving) and decide to adopt a cure-all baby (yeah, that always works).
With Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as the older couple and the charismatic Adam Driver (what is it about him, I don’t know, but it’s something) and Amanda Seyfried as the younger. All give satisfying and empathetic performances.
But it’s Charles Grodin as Leslie who steals the movie, giving an amazing turn as the somewhat curmudgeon of an elder statesman filmmaker. He’s so relaxed in the role and he’s riveting whenever he’s on screen.
And that’s Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Marry, as one of the subjects of Josh’s film.
For the last few years, English films have been the go to place for new Broadway musicals, musicals usually inspired by working class stories (Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots, The Full Monty), stories transported to a medium that most of the characters in the show couldn’t afford in real life.
Well, that winning streak may have been broken with the arrival of Cupcakes from Israel, a demi-musical waiting to be full blown, about a group of friends who get a chance to go to Eurovision in an attempt to bring back the early years of that competition, when passion and low key delivery outranked the camp that often informs the recent acts.
Cupcakes is written by Eli Bijaoui (his first film) and Eytan Fox. Fox also directed and in the past he’s been more known for a full blown dramatic approach to subject matter in such films as Yossi & Jagger, the sequel Yossi and, perhaps his greatest achievement, The Bubble, Romeo and Juliet reimagined to modern day Israel.
Cupcakes, though, may be a bit too lightweight to be truly successful. It’s fun and entertaining and it gets the job done, and the music, especially the song written for Eurovision, is quite infectious. But it also feels almost as frothy as the cupcakes that one of the characters makes every year for when the group gathers to cheer for their favorite country to win.
The filmmakers give each of their characters the usual inner and outer conflicts that are worked out during their trek to Paris to sing. There are no real surprises here. And nothing feels that dire or that much at stake, while the satire of Eurovision may be a bit too safe.
Still, I had a good time.