dir: Noah Baumbach
I’ve barely recovered from the last time I watched a Noah Baumbach film. You could almost describe my symptoms as being “post-Baumbach stress disorder” after having endured Greenberg. I know that wasn’t his next to most recent flick (that being Frances Ha), but I’m still trying to reconcile the deeply visceral and hateful reaction I had to that earlier flick.
I was wary to enter into the lion’s den again. One shouldn’t return to one’s abusers. It’s not healthy. It reeks of co-dependence and unhealthy relationships. If a person abuses you, physically or mentally, there are no good reasons to spend time with them ever again. They don’t respect you, the way Baumbach seems to have no respect for his audiences, sometimes. That’s when you start the exceedingly complicated process of extracting yourself, which can take months, years even.
But hey, if you’re a masochist or a glutton for punishment, let the good times roll!
With much trepidation, I started watching this flick, and I needn’t have worried. Though that trademark Baumbach sourness persists in its depiction of these characters and their interactions, it’s only a subtle aftertaste; it doesn’t overwhelm the meal. Sure, someone who trades in the sour, self-involved awfulness of his characters the way that Baumbach does isn’t going to be able to switch it off completely. Mostly I think the film walks the fine line of displaying the ridiculousness of the characters without ridiculing them for it.
The essential dynamics in the flick are these: there’s a couple in their 40s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), and they’re a bit unfulfilled professionally and personally. They are befriended by a younger couple, and for a long while, they are reenergised. They have a new lease on life, they are forced out of their complacent routines, and they end up hoping for something more from themselves and each other.
All well and good. Of course, we can see from the outset that the older couple is being played. It’s not that they’re being conned or ripped-off or exploited (which in a way they clearly are). It’s that the seduction is so easy, because Josh and Cornelia are so desperate for distraction from their own problems, and in the young couple they see all the possibilities they used to see in themselves.
The young couple, produced seemingly as the absolute personification of Brooklyn hipsterdom, are as absurd as they are lively. Adam Driver, playing here virtually the same character he plays in Girls (without the sexual vileness), if anything is even more arch and pretentious than can possibly be imagined. It is so profoundly obvious that he’s using Josh and Cornelia for their contacts, for the prestige conferred by her revered documentarian father (Charles Grodin), and that he’s manipulating them into further his career, that it's not even a question.
A simpler, and perhaps more boring film would make Jamie and Darby cold calculating villains. They’re not portrayed as such, or at least I don’t think the flick was making them out to be as such. It would be too easy, too pat. Part of the difference is that apart from depicting the generational differences between the two couples and the way they relate to the world, is that Baumbach is presumably marvelling at the kids of today and their smartphones and their casual relationship to the truth and their perverse fixation on authenticity. As Cornelie eventually says, "He's not evil, he's just young."
Jamie clearly is a cad, always saying the right yet slightly off-kilter thing in order to keep stringing the oldies along. So desperately does Josh crave Jamie’s approval that by the time he can see how completely he’s been played, it’s way too late for him. And yet when he tries to inform the whole world of Jamie’s perfidy, the world, so to speak, looks at Josh like he’s overreacting to the natural order of things.
And that’s where it gets more complicated and more enjoyable. It contrasts the relationship, professional and otherwise between Josh and Jamie, with Josh’s difficult relationship with his father-in-law, where we come to understand that there are longstanding resentments, but they mostly seem to be one-sided.
Leslie Breitbart (Grodin) is the respected documentarian, Josh is the guy who’s been working on the same doco for ten years with no end in sight, and yet every comment from Leslie the elder is greeted with that particular hackles raised – most negative reading approach that shows us Josh desperately craves Leslie’s approval but also desperately has to misread him in order to keep ignoring the creative/intellectual bankruptcy he fears.
To comical effect we see Josh continuing to interview the same old confused academic he’s been interviewing for ten years, unable to admit that he no longer has any idea of what he’s trying to capture. But he can’t admit that he’s been wasting his time, so he just has to keep doing it, on and on, with no end in sight.
Just to repeat: Josh is not the hero of this piece. We get to see him be oblivious as to his own behaviours, his inability to take criticism or to even see how oblivious he is to the needs of others. All the same, he’s not portrayed as a horrible person. The problems that he and Cornelia have faced in trying to have kids have made them a bit fractious or frustrated with each other, but they still seem to be a loving couple that only gets put at risk because some of the more blatant manipulations of Jaime and Darby.
Their difficulty in reconciling themselves to not becoming parents, and their advancing age, manifests in their growing distance with a couple they’ve been friends with for ages who’ve recently had a baby. The supreme awkwardness of falling out with them is displayed, without being underlined, when they accidentally crash a party they weren’t invited to, only to insist that there’s no way they will stay, only to end up staying, sitting disconsolate, unmissed and unremarked upon by anyone.
It’s actually so deftly done that it left me smiling more than anything else. Baumbach is no less incisive in this mode, but it manages to avoid being as alienating as some of his other films can sometimes be. It keeps the stuff going on relatable, and the reactions of the people involved believable.
My best example of this is the manner in which the story seems to be building to a particular and pretty familiar kind of dramatic moment when Josh confronts Jaime. A different flick would have had them punch on. An even more different and dumber flick would have had the two wrestling like idiots and interrupting the ‘big’ speech given by one of the characters, to the horror of all assembled. Even then, when this flick does build to what seems like the big reveal, it’s entirely negated, entirely undercut, and Josh too late realises he’s never going to get the satisfaction that he thinks is his due.
And why? Because for all his sneakiness, for all his manipulations of people and fact, for all his fairly benign ruthlessness, in Jaime these various people (who aren’t Josh) see talent and potential genius, and they’ll give him the benefit of the doubt they no longer or never extended towards Josh, who wasted whatever potential he had and is doing himself no favours with what others would suspect is jealousy-inspired acting out.
Overall, it’s all meant to be gently humorous. It’s not trying to be transformative, or to be a completely definitive sociological ‘study’ of hipsters or American white middle class young / middle aged people. It’s about the incredulousness with which older people view the actions of the young, the envy they might feel in seeing their energies exercised without the learned fears and behaviours that now stifle them, the complexities of the mentor/mentee relationship, the ease with which appealing to the elder’s vanity can get the younger’s foot in the door. It’s more admiring than scathing, more wryly incredulous that condemning, and that’s to its benefit.
If there’s a funniest line or idea, it’s when Josh and Cornelia visit Jaime and Darby’s pad and see it so artfully arrayed with all the video cassettes, audio tapes and typewriters and such that people like Josh and Cornelia threw away decades ago. It’s when people in their twenties lecture people in their forties on what those technologies, art specific to that earlier era and forms of media actually mean that you know you’ve lived too long.
It's like that moment when your partner's teenage nieces start trying to tell you about how great and important Blondie or Ziggy Stardust were in the scheme of things. Your jaw drops a little, but then you make allowances.
Perhaps the ending is a little trite, but I’ll allow it, just this once. If there’s a trope in storytelling I hate (and there are many), it’s the idea that troubled relationships and bored people’s lives can be improved just by having/getting a baby, but eh, complaining about it would be empty. It ends in just the way it needs to end, with gentle progress and the mild hope that for the less ruthless people out there, there may still be hope for some happiness yet in this crazy carnival we call life.
8 times you hope you never end up ‘that’ couple, when you’ve probably long been ‘that’ couple without realising it out of 10
“It’s like he once saw a sincere person and he’s been imitating him ever since” – I know exactly what/who you mean – While We’re Young