While We’re Old: Looking in Noah Baumbach’s MirrorNicole Rivelli/A24
“Do you identify as Gen X or Gen Y?” a younger friend once asked me, catching me off guard. “Because your attitude is very Gen X in some ways,” she went on, “but you use computers like a millennial.” My answer was “neither” and “both.”
I recalled this conversation while watching Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, which pits Ben Stiller as a Gen X documentarian in his forties who is first in love and then at war with a YouTube-generation documentarian played by Adam Driver. It’s the culmination of Baumbach’s lifelong artistic fixation on coolness and aging, which started with his debut, Kicking and Screaming, which is about the wish to never leave college life for the wilds of reality. While We’re Young is the sort of comedy about the yuppie experience that becomes an event movie, a caustically reflexive commentary on The Way We Live Now for the type of people who a few decades ago would have gone to see Woody Allen movies for this kind of neurotic self-reading — movies in which people talk and feel and consume and sometimes make out in secret during parties, in which desires are intellectualized into oblivion but nonetheless exert an animalistic pull. Baumbach’s films are contentious among friends of mine. Some people hate what they see in his mirror: unlikable people driven by selfish desires. But the people in his movies tend to hate what they see in the mirror as well. His movies make me feel like I’m at my own roast.1
While We’re Young is a commentary on Baumbach’s entire oeuvre, a self-dissection from a relentlessly critical artist who knows his own flaws all too well. (One conversation in which Stiller defends a “boring” movie as purposely provoking an “uncomfortable” feeling made me laugh out loud, because I’d just watched Baumbach’s own Margot at the Wedding, a movie that was roundly criticized as both when it came out.2) While We’re Young is Baumbach’s most accessible comedy — his least pretentious and maybe also his best. Like Stiller’s character, he ultimately doffs the metaphorical fedora of his pride and admits he just wants (his art) to be loved. Baumbach is in the same generation of indie-crossover filmmakers as David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, and Wes Anderson, who now receive prestige and regular Oscar nominations.3 While We’re Young is both Baumbach’s admission that maybe he wanted these things, too, and his realization that he will never get them, but maybe he doesn’t need them if he can just make movies that connect with people. While We’re Young has a cautiously happy ending, evincing the potential for personal change, even if structural change ends up being beyond one’s reach. Having found cynicism wanting, Baumbach turns to hope.
Josh (Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are seduced and then betrayed by the young couple Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Their first encounters give both couples a jolt — they are overcome with what polyamorous people refer to as “new relationship energy” — and both are suddenly able to admit how bored and stagnant they’d been feeling before. The film plays with the cultural expectation that getting older means pairing off, and that pairing off means a slow general retreat indoors. But having gotten to the stage where they and their friends are established, reproducing, and starting to have back problems, Josh and Cornelia seek other ways out. Like Neighbors, which allowed Rose Byrne’s wife character to admit she wanted to throw off responsibility as much as her husband, played by Seth Rogen, both Josh and Cornelia take to being twentysomethings again equally well. Cornelia is thrilled to be among people whose biological clocks are not an issue yet, and she becomes just as enchanted with Darby as Josh does with Jamie. Seyfried luxuriates in this opportunity to flex her great ability with comedic delivery for the first time since Mean Girls. Baumbach is a specialist in unhappy women, and even the sunny, seemingly carefree Darby is hiding a neurotic inner self. The only person who escapes neurotic self-sabotage is Jamie, played by Driver in what has become a peerless run of baselessly naturally overconfident male characters. What Josh sees first as charm in Jamie he comes to recognize as cunning.
Young people are nakedly ambitious, and perhaps it’s just that over time, with age and experience, you learn to clothe high expectations in doubts. Not that you stop having expectations. You just learn from experience that most things do not work out, at least not the way you thought they would. To try to convey this to someone younger makes you seem bitter and negative, and when an older person does it to you it feels condescending. If Baumbach became stubborn about selling out or trying to, it’s because he tried before. His movies Mr. Jealousy and Highball neutered his bite into mere ’90s sarcasm. He took an Alan Smithee directing credit on Highball, whose Swingers-aping VHS cover you may remember. Baumbach didn’t make a movie again for eight years, which has echoes in the While We’re Young plotline about Josh working on a documentary for 10 years without ever finishing it, and desperately needing it to redeem him as an artist and human being. Baumbach tenderly mocks Josh’s need for the film to succeed by establishing that it obviously never will. His documentary is dull and pedantic in service of a message. He may not even be a good enough artist to have such terrible writer’s block, and perfectionism could be the excuse he uses to put off inevitable failure. When Josh meets Jamie, who not only has natural talent but knocks out new content constantly, he is appalled but drawn in, feeling like he just missed being in a new Beat Generation full of collaboration and creation.
Baumbach didn’t achieve critical success again until 2005’s personal and darkly funny The Squid and the Whale, and critics turned on him again after Margot. Greenberg and Frances Ha saw Baumbach working with Greta Gerwig and becoming close with her mumblecore klatch of young filmmakers. In Greenberg the theme becomes paramount: Greenberg still feels 25, he still acts 25, so why can’t he still just be 25? He doesn’t perceive himself as an old man, and he’s horrified when he realizes this is how the young people around him see him. He’s too immature for his own age group and too physically mature to invisibly blend in with the youngs. Stiller is the perfect Antoine Doinel avatar for Baumbach, and in some ways this movie feels like Greenberg 2: Greenberg Gets Married, although Josh is ultimately a less awful person than Greenberg. The ending of While We’re Young is divisive and a little pat, but the route the movie takes to get there is always interesting, a demonstration that process can be more fun than product.
What Josh and Cornelia really envy in Jamie and Darby, aside from their youthful enthusiasm, is their playfulness. In lieu of having children, the older couple undergoes a similar reframing of the world through young eyes. Friends their own age — including a stay-at-home dad played by Ad-Rock4 — are judgmental of Josh and Cornelia’s deviation off the standard paths, and want to force them to choose. Are they babies or grown-ups? But can’t they be both? Aren’t we all?
When I went to film school, the divide between generations was made obvious by the literal division between digital and film. It came to symbolize the division between working within tradition and embracing the new. My generation learned how to do everything both ways: We learned digital and film, new and old. Our elder statesmen were Gen X, but our younger overlords were millennials. It’s as though we were skipped.
What does it mean to be an independent filmmaker in an age when literally anyone can pick up a camera and shoot everything all the time, without having to spend money on film or the time it takes to cut it manually on an editing bay? In my experience, indie filmmakers and documentarians like Jamie and Josh are usually either totally broke or have secret trust funds. They are both rich-kid hobbies and shoestring disciplines. The documentary world is as cloistered and incestuous as the world Baumbach originates from, and most of the film’s complaints and questions about the digital age of doc-making double for indie film.
Josh clings to his Gen X ethics defensively, as protection against having couched his own ambition in fear of failure all of those years. He is jealous of the kids and their ability to just do instead of over-thinking, but he’s also angry that a new ideology of practice has overtaken his own. Ultimately he comforts himself by deciding he just wasn’t selfish enough to get what he wanted from life. But he can’t escape the questions of whether he was born too early or too late, and why he can’t just stay forever young.
The conversation about honesty and ambition that dominates the last act feels particularly timely, because it is also a conversation about ethics in documentary filmmaking, which came up a lot recently vis-à-vis The Jinx but has existed as long as the form. Jamie turns out to be partially a stand-in for director Ariel Schulman, of all people, whose documentary Catfish (which spawned the TV series) was accused of fudging timelines and facts for the purpose of creating a better narrative. When (spoiler alert!) Josh accuses Jamie and his partly staged documentary of being fake, Jamie responds by saying that in order to have fooled everyone so far, he must be the best director in the world, and the subject of his doc must be the best actor since Marlon Brando. He denies that anything important was faked. I recognized this quote immediately; it is from a New Yorker article by Richard Brody about the Catfish controversy. When a Sundance audience member asked if the filmmakers considered Catfish a “faux-documentary” rather than a truthful record, “Schulman leapt to a conclusion. ‘Oh, so you’re saying that my brother is the best actor in the world? Let’s hear it for my brother! The next Marlon Brando, ladies and gentlemen!’ he said, applauding. The cheers Schulman led drowned out his questioner. Then, the filmmaker continued, his voice raising an octave. ‘Thank you very much! Oh, and we’re the best writers in Hollywood? Thank you everyone!’ With that, Schulman cut off both the Q&A and his questioner.” The movie doesn’t fully side with Josh or Jamie, although Jamie’s loose intepretation is defended by Josh’s mentor and father-in-law Leslie Breitbart, a fictional great documentarian played by Charles Grodin. The implication is that Jamie’s generation is unconstrained. Josh’s version of a “real” documentary, constructed from hard evidence, isn’t really true anyway. In a digital world, the truth isn’t something you can hold.
Members of my microgeneration are not, like millennials, digital natives. Rather we are digital immigrants, and so we remember both the old analog land and the new virtual world: physical objects and digitized content. Last weekend I found myself bored at home, yearning for something to do, and wishing I could just go browse at a video store — a ritual of my childhood and teenage years that I never even imagined would be phased out. Josh compares the cultural acceptance of constant smartphone usage to a flash of ankle in Victorian times — soon enough no one can remember that something was once considered shocking: posting selfies, for example. But the same goes for the idea that there is some true story about ourselves that we can document and that every story involves twisting, framing, and changing perspectives from different angles.
I am a little bit Josh and a little bit Jamie. Jamie’s interest in high/low culture, where snobbiness is no longer a concern, is exactly like mine. Josh calls it “democratic.” But there are plenty of times when I find myself sounding like Josh, arguing some closely held principle of mine in a way that makes me sound and feel much older than I am.
The feeling that one is no longer 20 begins at 21 and never really stops after that. I have never decided whether I am Gen X or Gen Y. I feel too young to be Gen X, but I lived through Nirvana. I feel too old to be Gen Y, but my friend wasn’t wrong: I consume media like a proto-millennial. I feel old around younger people and young around older people. There is a part of me that is still Kicking and Screaming — it’s my 10-year college reunion this spring, but I still feel like I just got out of school.
Mostly I feel more or less the same as I always have since childhood. Maybe it’s genetic. My grandmother, who turns 101 this week, is one of the most youthfully spirited people I know. The truth is that I feel most comfortable lingering in the in-betweenness, pursuing the contradictions in my own personal ideologies. There’s nothing wrong with becoming the adult self your younger self imagined, and then changing your mind.