Writer/director Noah Baumbach has been on what many may consider to be on quite a bit of a roll lately, churning out one film after the next in almost Woody Allen fashion. Fans of his can almost look forward to a new Baumbach movie every 1-2 years these days, which is a far cry from the Baumbach of old (this is a guy that took a full ten years off between 1995’s “Kicking and Screaming” and still what I consider to be the best of his films – 2004’s “The Squid and the Whale”. That same year he also co-wrote “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” with fellow industry fan and friend Wes Anderson. Which, I thought with the exception of maybe the Anderson/Owen Wilson penned “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) ) ranks up their with the best of any of Anderson’s scripts. Ironic because “The Squad in the Whale”, as mentioned which was made that same year, felt like the most Anderson influenced film that he’s done (and that’s meant as a compliment) . He then came back just a few years later with “Margot at the Wedding” (2007) which admittedly I didn’t love, but I can’t say I didn’t admire.
Then came what I consider to be the “new” Baumbach crop of films as he entered the start of the new decade with “Greenberg” (2010) and “Frances Ha” (2012). Which, content-wise, one could draw a lot of similarities between the two. They both follow an aging central character (in “Greenberg” a 40-something Stiller and in “Frances Ha” a late twenty-something Greta Gerwig). Though while I personally thought “Frances Ha” was a much better film and Baumbach’s second best film to date. It’s within these two films that he started to explore ideas about aging, our insecurities, our ability (or inability) to fit in with our contemporaries, not feeling as if we’ve lived up to our true potential, and how we measure success relative to those around us. Among many other themes but which, at least to me, seemed to be the major ones. Baumbach appears to have finally found his niche, much like Wes Anderson has, in terms of his films slowly starting to feel similar in content, feel, and tone.
When I first saw the trailer for “While We’re Young” I was excited as it seemed to be an extension of his exploring the similar themes that he did in both “Greenberg” (2010), and “Frances Ha” (2012). With Baumbach returners Ben Stiller (“Greenburg”) and Adam Driver (“Frances Ha”) both playing starring roles, while also welcoming stars Noami Watts and Amanda Seyfried into the mix. It also marks his third original musical score in a row with James Murphy, ex-frontman of the funk/electro outfit LCD Soundsystem. Whose own music and extensive record collector knowledge of music I’ve always thought worked well within the Baumbach framework. My only bit of skepticism going into the film was that, at least by the trailer, Baumbach was working within familiar ground here. That and it looked like his most commercially viable film to date. With A-list starts Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts playing the two lead roles. However though with any Baumbach feature my anticipation of seeing it was rather high, considering myself to be a great admirer of his work.
“While We’re Here” stars Ben Stiller as Josh, a mid forty-something documentary filmmaker working and living out of New York City with his wife, Cornelia (played by Naomi Watts). The two spend most of their time with their seemingly only friends Fletcher (played by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia). Who, like many of their contemporaries, just had a baby (interesting how in Baumbach’s world, people don’t seem to have children until they’re in their forties). Josh is a continuing education instructor at an unspecified school who teaches some sort of film class to pay the bills while he works on his sophomore documentary, one that’s he’s been filming for almost six years now but just can’t seem to complete. Until one day he finds two new faces sitting in one of his classes played by newleyweds Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) who just so happen to be a fan of his previous documentary that he so desperately for many years has been trying to follow-up on. He instantly forms a bond with the two twenty-something’s who, he and his wife admire for their youth, as do Jamie and Darby admire them for their age and success (if you want to call it that) and Jamie’s dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker himself. The two couples start to spend a considerable amount of time together much to the chagrin of their other best friends Fletcher and Mariana, who think they should be settling down and having a baby. But Jamie and Darby have brought them a new zest to life, a rejuvination, where it feels good to be hanging around young people who seem to be doing fun things all the time and who have openly embraced them as one of their own. This gives them a new-found sense of purpose and meaning to what up until that point seems like a meandering existence.
I walked away from this film feeling both a bit conflicted and indifferent about how I felt about it. In my “Ten Most Anticipated Films of the Winter/Spring Movie Season” section I published awhile back, I wrote that I felt like Baumbach could be delving into familiar territory here after having seen the trailer. And for the most part that’s more or less kind of how I felt about the film. It does live up to its promise and presents us with a story about two forty-somethings who seem to be experiencing somewhat of a mid-life crisis (which in many ways felt like Baumbach’s last film “Frances Ha”) except for in that film he depicted Greta Gerwig as someone going through a “quarter-life” crisis. Baumbach does a great job with the script in hitting all the right notes about what it really feels like to go from late early adulthood to middle-aged adulthood, while desperately trying to hold onto one’s youth. His ability to make his themes seem relatable and universal has always been a strong suit of his and once again mostly works for him here. The central idea of the two couples (Stiller and Watts and Driver and Seyfried) and the juxtapositions of how they live their lives, and the cross-generational appeal is examined as smart, funny, poignant, and cute. But within this examination it doesn’t really offer us any deeper insight into what many of us already feel, like we’re big kids trapped in a little person’s body. Sure there are some genuinely funny moments that produce quite a few laughs and its treatment of its characters is both real, undeniably human, and at times heartfelt and touching. What didn’t work for me which has become apparent in a lot of Wes Anderson’s work as of late, is that Baumbach has seemed to have found a niche, and in a sense it feels like he’s rehashing the same formula that’s worked for him before. I personally feel like it’s important for an artist to step out of their comfort zone and try something new and interesting that they haven’t done before in order to remain fresh. But to me this film just seemed like “another” Noah Baumbach film. With the same sense of what I call “hipsterdom” which I feel like he’s trying almost in a sense to pander towards a specific target audience. Which ultimately I felt like was the film’s greatest weakness in its inability to feel like anything new or original from the writer/director. Let’s hope the second film that his next project promises, “Mistress America”, which opens later this year and reunites him with “Frances Ha” co-star and real life girlfriend and muse Greta Gerwig, finds him exploring something new and not so all too familiar.