Film Review: While We’re Young

I have a strange relationship with the films of Noah Baumbach. I remember a good few years ago watching The Squid And The Whale and being left completely confused and befuddled as to what exactly it was; while Greenberg just left me cold, it’s one of those films in which nothing really happens, and Frances Ha managed to wind me up when watching yet become stuck in my head with such affection afterwards that I named it one of the top films I watched during 2014.

And, as I mentioned during my review of Greenberg, Baumbach’s latest creation is While We’re Young. A strange tale about a couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) transcending their middle years who are welcomed into the strangely free spirited lives of mid-twenties husband and wife Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). It’s an idea which seems simple enough, essentially a mid life crisis story, the reinvigoration of life by learning to view the world through less tired, weathered and sceptical eyes, told in a light hearted and comedic way. But this is Baumach, and nothing is ever that simple.

Noah Baumbach - While Were Young

So, while I thought I knew where While We’re Young would go, while I wasn’t asking many questions of it, I didn’t expect to receive the film I did. Sadly, it just feels like a total mess and as a story it ends up making absolutely no sense.

While We’re Young manages to create a plot that somehow feels completely fragmented and broken while also feeling connected and linear. I think the problem is that the film either doesn’t know what it wants to be, or it is trying to be too much. That, or it is trying to hide what it really wants to say in layers of other messages, scared almost to really let it’s voice be heard. On the surface is this very simple and basic story. The midlife crisis. Which is then supplemented with a strange a bizarre set of events that while connected – A leads to B and on to C – somehow don’t feel natural together and end up tonally appearing as almost individual vignettes rather than a coherent story.

The other problem is that these little snippets are at times just mad and incomprehensible. They become a little bit too farfetched and so once again you end up with a layer within a layer that just breaks up the film even more. And it’s so annoying, because there moments when the film feels like is has potential, but they are so fleeting and so diluted by everything around them that they become almost forgotten as quickly as they arrive. It’s also noticeable that it’s the performances of Stiller and Watts that provide these moments. Driver and Seyfried constantly come across childish, annoying and insolent. I’m not into the thrift store hipster lifestyle and I don’t know anyone who is, but I cannot believe for one second it’s interpretation on screen by Driver and friends can be accurate because if it is why anyone would actively chose it is beyond me. I swear the longer the film when one the more grating and irritating I found Driver.

Ben Stiller  Naomi Watts - While Were Young

The end product of a film that feels so individualised in it’s events is a story that feels so slow, boring and worse still far longer than it truly it. It’s a short film – 97 minutes – and yet it feels well over two hours. And because it never feels like it’s going to end, because it’s meanders so badly from side to side it never sits comfortably, you never relax into it. Aside from sharing a passing compassion with Stiller’s character as events play out, you never befriend the anyone else. None ever feel real and none ever manage to convey any emotion or passion into their performance. Everything just feels a little bit stale and devoid. It’s almost as if, for the majority of the film, they are all just reading a script while playing a part and don’t really care about how they make you feel or whether you’re convinced by them or not.

And I think so much of that lies with director Noah Baumbach. Firstly, the film suddenly and almost out of nowhere twists to a dramatic revelation and speech which feels less connected to everything that has gone before, and more a simple rant by Baumbach. A disagreement, a view point, an industry commentary he needed, wanted, to get off his chest. You suddenly think “ah, so this is what the film is truly about…” but as annoyingly as everything in this film, it suddenly shuts up. Just as you want it to scream and rant and make it’s point it’s almost as if it suddenly loses it’s nerve, decides that it doesn’t actually want to make it’s point, or to rock the boat, and shies away. And it just makes you lose patience and trust with it because you suddenly feel like the film isn’t being fully honest with you.

Wes Anderson - Fantastic Mr. Fox

And honesty and trust is what it all boils down to because for every issue: the lack of believable characters, the fractured narrative, my final problem with the film is that it feels like a tribute act. I spoke earlier about how it comes across as a meandering set of portraits somehow pushed together and watching it I couldn’t help but feel there is a huge influence from the madness of Wes Anderson, and the fluid, carefree style he creates to hide a fundamental point through an outlandish imagination. But it lacks his quality. And it’s the fact that it’s the apprentice rather than the master so to speak (Baumbach worked with Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox) you can see what Baumbach wants to do but lacks the skill to achieve. And so you get a story that is fearful of being true to itself, scared of the reputation it may create and the backlash it may invoke if it really want all out to say what it desperately wants to. It may be that Baumbach didn’t know how to orate his point, but to me it felt instead like he held it back, scared to let it really run free and ended up just twisting everything into such a muddle trying to find a way of saying it, without actually saying it, that While We’re Young simply ended up saying nothing at all with any clarity.

5 out of 10 stars (5 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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