Sometimes you need a foil. When Gary Fleder’s Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead came out in 1995, I gained a newfound respect for Quentin Tarantino. Fleder and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg were trying to emulate Tarantino, whose Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had recently exploded on Hollywood and left a ton of fast-talking, stylised hyper-violent crime stories in their aftermath. Fleder and Rosenberg were not especially successful. The movie was not a total disaster, but in hindsight, it only serves to show how good Tarantino was at that sort of thing.
I don’t know if twenty years from now, Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young will be deemed a fine movie in its own right, or whether it will stand as a rather modest counterpoint to Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, revealing Allen’s genius more than having its own place of honour. Baumbach’s movie is certainly not a total disaster either, but developing two rather disparate stories as an organic plot, while balancing high and low comedy and meaningful drama, is a very tall order. Sometimes we take for granted just how tall it truly is when a master like Allen pulls off the feat. Baumbach, whose talent is as obvious as his tendency toward preciousness, is not as successful.
While We’re Young begins with an intriguing premise. Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are a couple of married 40-somethings who realise they have fallen into a bit of a rut. The rut is accentuated by the fact that best friends Fletcher and Marina (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia) have recently had their first child and entered into that phase of life which childless couples view with equal parts envy and contempt; the all-encompassing child-rearing years.
Their salvation seems to magically appear when free-spirited 20-somethings Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) show up in the continuing education documentary film class taught by Josh. Just as Fletcher and Marina’s lives begin to revolve around their new baby, Josh and Cornelia are gobsmacked by the energy of their new surrogate children. But instead of going to Mommy-and-Me music classes, Jamie/Darby lead them to trendy clubs and narcotic-fueled retreats. Josh and Cornelia show a lot more energy and interest in life.
Of course, there are things a 45 year old can’t or won’t do. And that idea of identity – of figuring out who you are and what you need to be happy – is promising thematic soil that Baumbach begins to till. But no sooner has he begun to explore the terrain than he launches a secondary plot which overtakes it. This plot involves Josh’s career as a documentarian, his conflict with his father-in-law (played by a rather somnambulant Charles Grodin), who is a far more successful documentarian, and Jamie’s desire to launch his own career as – wait for it – a documentarian. Without giving too much away, this part of the plot is a little bit like a slow moving cruise ship headed for a collision (think Speed 2, if you were unfortunate enough to have seen it). You can see it coming from a long way off, and you hope and pray that this isn’t actually going to happen. But you are powerless to stop it. It’s hard to know whether this second part of the movie, with its All About Eve-style suspense would have worked had Baumbach simply developed a suspense story from the beginning. As it stands, it seems a little contrived.
Much like Jamie, Baumbach is full of ideas and ambition. That leads to eye-opening moments in virtually all his movies. But it also leads to confusion. In addition to awkward plotting, there is a clash of styles and themes which keeps the story from being totally engaging. There is a great deal of sly, observational humour. (My favourite line: Jamie is pumping up Josh for a meeting with a potential donor by playing Eye of the Tiger. Josh, who is trying his best to get into the moment, marvels “I remember when this song was bad.”) But it is offset, and not very successfully, by slapstick humour of Josh negotiating the subway on roller blades, and most obviously, an extended sequence that features a great deal of vomit humour. Thematically, the whole concept of middle-aged folks desperately trying to stay young, which started off so promisingly, gives way entirely to deep philosophising on the nature of documentary film and by extension, on truth in general. In doing this, Baumbach commits an unpardonable dramatic sin. His story becomes less interesting as it moves along.
The comparisons to Crimes and Misdemeanors are fairly obvious. Both movies revolve around a stubborn documentarian trying to complete a film that no one really wants to see. (It is fun to see Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, and Mary, take over the role of aged scholar that Martin Bergmann played for Allen). He has a conflict with another, more results-oriented artist who threatens to steal his woman. Both end at a ceremony honouring a different man all together. But Allen audaciously added an entire story on top of this that did not involve the documentarian at all. That story contains most of the philosophy. Baumbach attempted to cram it all into one coherent narrative. I’m not suggesting that’s the wrong decision. I’m merely saying that, regardless of narrative strategy, Allen did it a lot better.
But as foils go, While We’re Young has its charms. Stiller is solid as its centre, and it’s always good to see Watts. Driver, who has become the go-to guy for quirky young men in the manner of Jeff Goldblum, does very well as Jamie. Baumbach’s artistic ambitions are always admirable, and he has the talent to create a cluster of witty and insightful moments. If it occasionally goes off the rails or fails to build on its more promising features, it is, at the very least, a better movie than Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead.