When you travel to Noah Baumbach country, it is certainly no day at the beach.
A good Baumbach film is not a fluffy rom-com, where disbelief is suspended from the nearest and tallest oak tree; where the attractive hero and heroine wittily banter until they jump in the sack, fall in love, then fall out of love, then fall in love again and presumably live happily ever after as a married and successful couple with children.
In a Baumbach film, the hero and heroine, though attractive and ambitious, are usually bitter and disappointed with their careers, with themselves and with their relationship. But Baumbach has an amazing way of squeezing humor out of darkness, disappointment, bitterness and failed dreams.
With his latest film, While We’re Young, he successfully delivers.
Josh Shrebnick, (Ben Stiller) and his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are your archetypical Baumbachian characters.
Josh and Cornelia are both forty-something New Yorkers – intellectual, hyper-articulate, self-centered and painfully self-aware. Josh writes, directs and produces documentary films; Cornelia produces documentaries, primarily in association with her very successful and well-known writer-director father (played by Charles Grodin).
Josh once made a very entertaining and successful documentary, but for the last ten years he has been struggling to complete his second film, an esoteric, disorganized, painfully boring and non-commercial commentary about the American power elite.
Cornelia, whose own producing career is too dependent upon her famous father, is between jobs.
Years ago, Cornelia and Josh nearly worked together on a film of which they were both passionate, but then Josh preferred going it alone; the project was stillborn and Cornelia never forgot or forgave Josh for that missed opportunity. Cornelia and Josh have also repeatedly failed at conceiving a child, and their childlessness has created a gulf between them and their married friends with children.
They are stagnating both together and apart.
Fortunately, Josh and Cornelia meet up with two young twenty-something New York artistic hipsters, Jaime (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried).
Jaime is an aspiring film maker. He shoots hours of film, literally and figuratively from the hip, then thinks later. Jaime is bursting with creativity out of his oh so tight jeans. Darby makes natural and organic ice cream. To Josh and Cornelia they represent their former energetic youth, vanished idealism and – perhaps – surrogate children.
Initially, Jaime wins Josh over. He is charming and deferential to Josh; he appeals to Josh’s vanity and professional insecurity. He wants Josh to be his mentor and advise him and assist him on Jaime’s own film project.
But things are not what they appear, and Jaime is more manipulative rake than devoted student to Josh.
Driver as Jaime is very well cast. As in his role of Adam (Lena Dunham’s dynamic and emotionally unstable boyfriend on Girls) he exudes a powerful and explosive energy. He is very effective as a charming, ambitious and single-mined hustling film maker, who will fabricate, manipulate and take advantage of his wife, Josh, Cornelia and even Cornelia’s famous father in order to make and complete his film and become famous in the process.
Admittedly, I was a little reluctant to enter Baumbach country, but I was rewarded with flawed and complex characters created by a director at the top of his game, as he deftly touched on subjects like youth, age, ambition, creativity , honesty, authenticity and how documentary films have been transformed from honest portrayals of reality to manipulated personal statements of the writer/directors.
As for Ben Stiller, one can devote an entire article, just to his craft. Unlike Woody Allen, Stiller refuses to play sympathetic and likeable characters who win the beautiful girl at the end.
In this film, he is neurotic, narcissistic, self-centred, insensitive and single-minded. Uncharacteristically, Stiller as Josh opens himself up to working with Jaime and he is predictably punished and humiliated in the process. Stiller’s Josh is cringe-worthy, but it is impossible to turn away from Stiller and his purposely pathetic performance.
On the other hand, Naomi Watts is certainly worth the price of admission, even at Cineplex’s grossly inflated VIP ticket rates.
Naomi Watts is a brilliant actress who has played some very strong and complex roles, like the Russian-British midwife in Eastern Promises, the American CIA agent/suburban housewife in Fair Game and a hysterically funny Russian hooker with a heart of gold opposite Bill Murray in St. Vincent.
Watts’ Cornelia, barren and professionally frustrated, also tries to recapture her youth by doing hip hop with Darby and experimenting with hallucinogens. She’s caught between her love and loyalty to the stubborn and uncompromising Josh and the intoxicating lure of success with the flawed but creative Jaime.
Even Cornelia’s “old school” filmmaker dad is taken in by Jaime’s film making style and entertaining though fabricated product.
Enter Baumbach country at your own risk. You may or may not leave entertained but Baumbach’s complex themes and messages will stay with you whether you’re young or not so young.