While We're Young full movie review - In life as in film we are true or fake.
Two quotations frame While We're Young. It opens with a quotation from Wallace Shawn's translation of Ibsen's The Master Builder. The passage expresses fear that a knock on a door threatens invasion by the young.
At film end we hear the master builder Paul McCartney singing about another knock on a door, but now the stance is Let 'em In. What is feared at the beginning is accepted at the end. That frame situates the film in the tension between accepting how life has changed us and trying to act otherwise. That is, how do we live? From our essential core or as what we pretend to be? Will we act out of our core or play assumed roles? Will we be honest or deceptive, to ourselves as well as to others?
The three main actors play documentary film-makers of varying degrees of integrity. Hero schnook Josh (Ben Stiller) made a successful film about The Power Elite but has now spent almost 10 years bogged down on a documentary about "how power works in America," rooted in the penal system. He and wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a documentary producer, are seduced into a friendship and professional collaboration by the younger couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Josh is alienated from Cornelia's father, the venerable documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), who defines himself and his art when he's honoured at the Lincoln Centre. (The fourth generation documentarist may be the friends' baby at the end, coolly texting or shooting or editing on a smart phone. tba.)
All three men prove variations on Ibsen's Master Builder. Leslie's star career came at the cost of selfishness, neglecting his family and a mercilessness that he finds lacking in his son-in-law. Josh uses his epic delay as an excuse for not living. When he rationalizes the couple's childlessness he says "We have freedom. What we do with it is not important." Jamie manipulates Darby, Cornelia, Josh and Leslie to make a successful film about his troubled schoolmate, Kent. But Jamie's lies and manipulations undercut what value his film may impute to him, as he turns the film about the suicidal, idealistic war veteran into his own success story, on the cover of ? aptly ? Vanity Fair.
Director Noah Baumbach early cites Godard's genre distinction: Documentary is about someone else; fiction is about me. That is, fictions are personal expressions, documentaries about the outside world. Josh initially believes documentaries should be about him too, so his current film shifts from American power to himself, to his impotence. He tells a potential funder the film is about the impossibility of making that film. His film chokes on his self-concern.
In contrast, Leslie's Lincoln Centre speech defines his art as focusing on subjects more interesting than him, of not imposing his perspective but allowing his subject to open itself out. But as he admits, "We were pretending to be objective ? to get to the truth of experience." As Leslie praised Josh's first film, "it was wonderful and entertaining. We could see ourselves in it." But it's fiction not documentary that's supposed to reflect ourselves. Documentary should show us others. After the honour ceremony, when Josh forces Jamie to admit his fakery to tell his old classmate's story, Leslie rejects Josh's "purism" and integrity: "Different things matter now." Confronted with Jamie's deception, Leslie admits "Dishonesty is more entertaining."
Josh played along when Jamie suggested re-staging Josh's Google discovery of Kent's heroic, damaged past. But Josh is angered to find Jamie's entire friendship, from its first flattering approach, was a deceptive ploy. In life as in film-making one can choose between being honest and deceptive, real and acting. We can live as in a documentary or as in a fiction, on which line Baumbach posits the whole film. Using the Wallace Shawn translation at the beginning points to the continuity between life and art, because Shawn translated Ibsen for his own 2013 film of the play. Baumbach's fiction gains a documentary feel when Leslie is introduced at the Lincoln Centre honours by the unidentified (and uncredited) director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich. The liberal philosopher whom Josh has been interviewing on tape, Ira Mandelstam, is played by Peter Yarrow, who trails clouds of radical political glory from his years in the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
Initially the two central couples play at each other's lives. Jamie and Darby live a self-consciously retro life. They use a typewriter and ride bikes and roller blades, make their own ice cream and furniture, collect vinyl albums, disdain of Google, in short, have cast themselves into the image of 1950s lives. Their falseness is implicit in Jamie's first praise for Josh's "hyperreality." The "hyper" undermines by exploding the "reality." Josh will learn to reject what he initially admires, Jamie's refusal to distinguish between the high and low ? brow in art, road in life.
The 45-year-old new friends start playing at being young ? taking hiphop classes, wearing a retro hat, walking the subway lines, even denying the advent of Josh's arthritis. Josh finds his false new self flattering: "My name sounds so much better when you say it." At the acme/nadir of their pretensions they take a shaman's peyote ritual that leads to Egyptian fantasies and a communal puke. That's as ridiculous as their married friends' baby music classes.
The couple cast themselves as younger because they don't want to play the roles of their new-parent friends. But they're turned around by their experience with Jamie. Josh eventuality realizes the falseness of Jamie's "hyperreality." It's another unreal. In a world where self and role are inextricable, the con advises integrity. Prepping Josh for his funding interview, Jamie instructs: "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken." The line has a second meaning. By proffering his false self Jamie "takes" in everyone else. Jamie provokes Josh's realization: "It's your responsibility to be honest ? whatever."