WHILE WE’RE YOUNG ****


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“WHILE WE’RE YOUNG” is a delightfully ambiguous title for this smart, well-written movie about truth and deception. Middle-aged couple Josh (Ben Stiller), a creatively stalled documentary filmmaker and film arts professor, and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) a documentary producer working for her dad (Charles Grodin), would like to think of themselves as “still young”.

It’s a self-deception that they must both work through. And the story charts their journey to facing up to and dealing with the truth…of their marriage, their age, their jobs…their realities.

It is soon after one of Josh’s lectures that he is greeted by one of his students – an enthusiastic and gushing Jamie (Adam Driver, who after his success on “Girls” seems to be in everything these days). Jamie, also a documentary filmmaker, and his wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried, so good in “Lovelace”) seem to be younger, better, hipper versions of themselves…the couple they imagine themselves as being, or would love to be again. 

So it’s no surprise that they’re easily seduced by Jamie and Darby’s seemingly boundless energy, passion and outright sexiness. For, faced with what seems to be a stark choice between reality – the banalities of planning and parenthood – and that fantasy – the pretense of being twenty five again, still enraptured by the energy of young love and an openness to experiences – they both opt for the fantasy.

They opt for a lie (with some very funny scenes as they do so)

Josh quickly begins to imitate Jamie’s hipster look and lifestyle. Corneila sheds her middle aged Pilates classes for hip-hop. It’s a cinematic cliché to see middle-aged white people imitating black hip hop style – remember Tom Cruise in “Tropic Thunder” – but in the safe hands of director Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha”), the comedy still works.

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Josh and Corneila both look ridiculous.

But no matter. If only for a moment, the fantasy of being young again energizes them. It re-engages their sex life. It re-ignites an excitement about life.

But only for a moment. For it’s not real.

What’s real is Josh’s middle aged arthritis, his back aches, their sense of loss from never having had kids, his turgid, boring unfinished documentary.

The life they’re willing themselves to imitate is all a fantasy: the seeming perfection of Jamie and Darby’s marriage is not even a reality. It’s a perception as false as thinking that parenting and adulthood is (as Josh and Corneila discover when they turn up at the apartment of their – age-appropriate- friends) an end to the good times. Perhaps, even more perniciously, everything about the casual encounter between Jamie and Josh is a lie…has all been planned and programmed by Jamie. Perhaps it was all just a clever ruse for him to get access to Josh’s revered and famous father in law (a celebrated documentary filmmaker); his own route to fame and acclaim.

Or is it? If the end is the search for “truth”, the goal we’re told of every serious documentary, do the means matter even if they involve a certain amount of (benign) deception?

When Jamie first intercepts Josh, he queries how Josh had staged a particular scene with dogs. Josh replies that the scene wasn’t staged, that the dogs just happened to have been there and that he simply shot them and edited the footage into the scene.

As we discover soon enough, the adulation is all fake. Jamie referenced this scene merely to prove the point that he’d seen the documentary. As a fellow filmmaker, his assumption was that the scene had been staged. For him, truth is a destination and it doesn’t matter the route you take to get there. For Josh, the idea of using a staged scene to express a truth would be dishonest…it’s the journey, the process that matters as much as the destination.

But it’s a false choice (Josh himself will need to reshoot scenes of the documentary he’s been working on for the last eight years, for purposes of continuity) and is perhaps more a reflection of his fear of the truth (that he’s no longer young, that Corneila can no longer have kids, that his documentary if he ever completes it, sucks) than anything to do with artistic process.

The scales fall from Josh’s eyes when, in the movie’s down-beat denoument, his attempt to unmask what he sees as Jamie’s deceitfulness, fizzles out

How you get to the truth really doesn’t matter that much in the end. It’s getting there that counts. And perhaps, though Josh may never produce a documentary that’ll garner the praises that Jamie’s probably will, he’s freed himself from self deception and has finally found his own – liberating- truth.

It’s one that’s probably more profound and meaningful than any documentary version of it.

Though Darby’s role felt a bit under-written (which meant Amanda Seyfried didn’t really have much more to do than look sexy; not difficult for her), Stiller, Watts and Driver were all superb. Indeed, this was one of Ben Stiller’s finest roles. That said, perhaps as the result of the directing, they all played within their comfort zones: Stiller the nerdy man/boy, Naomi the pleasant, somewhat contained partner, Adam Driver the perennial hip hop lightening-rod.

But, it’s nice to find an intelligent adult comedy surfacing in what sometimes seems a Sargasso of crude campus humor

While We’re Young. Dir./writer: Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer: Sam Levy (“Frances Ha”). With Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried

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One thought on “WHILE WE’RE YOUNG ****

  1. garethrhodes says:

    Great review. I really can’t wait to see this. I love Baumbach’s style and the added presence of Naomi Watts AND Adam Driver is enough for me to make the trip.

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