‘While We’re Young’: Another tribute to egocentrism

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For Digital First Media

Who is the most self-absorbed person you know? It is unlikely that they are anywhere near as bad as Josh (Ben Stiller), the principal protagonist of “While We’re Young.” However, Josh isn’t even the worst narcissistic in the film.  That dubious distinction belongs to Jamie (Adam Driver from “Girls’). Do you really expect to enjoy a film with such repellant characters at its epicenter?

In this latest film from writer/director, Noah Baumbach, Josh is a middle-aged, New York City-based documentarian. He has one film under his belt. It was reasonably well-crafted, but remained mired in obscurity. For the past ten years, Josh has been quixotically consumed with completing his follow-up film.

Josh is married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), who works as a producer for her father, Leslie Breibart (Charles Grodin). He is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, who is on the cusp of being feted at a Lincoln Center testimonial.  Josh was once a protégé of Breibart’s, However, now their relationship has grown acrimonious. Their most perfunctory interaction is fraught with tension.

Josh and Cornelia have tried to have children. Cornelia has become pregnant twice, but miscarried both times. Meanwhile, their long-time best friends, Fletcher (erstwhile Beastie Boy, Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia from “Orange is the New Black”) have just had their first child. This drives a wedge between the two couples.

In this image released by A24 Films, Naomi Watts, center, appears in a scene from "While We're Young." (AP Photo/A24 Films, Jon Pack)

In this image released by A24 Films, Naomi Watts, center, appears in a scene from “While We’re Young.” (AP Photo/A24 Films, Jon Pack)

One day, Josh is giving a guest lecture about documentary filmmaking. A young twenty something couple, Jamie and his wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried) are sitting in the audience, auditing the class. Afterwards, Jamie approaches Josh. He fawns over Josh’s first film. Josh is taken aback to meet someone, who has actually seen his opus. Upon being questioned by Josh, Jamie admits to being an aspiring documentarian. He claims to have purchased a copy of Josh’s debut film on ebay for $65.

Jamie and Darby are a quintessential hipster couple. They got hitched at a ceremony, held at an abandoned water tower on Harlem. They live in a pad chocked full of vinyl records and VHS tapes. Rather than use a computer Jamie pecks away on an archaic Selecta typewriter. While Jamie is constantly taping, Darby makes ice-cream in a variety of farfetched flavors.

Despite the generational gap, Josh and Cornelia find themsleves becoming best friends with Jamie and Darby. Cornelia traipses after Darby to attend a hip hop class. She is the oldest person there by far. Josh and Cornelia visit an Ayahuasca ceremony, run by a New Age shaman (Dean Wareham). There, they consume peyote and are encouraged to puke up their toxins.

Jamie and Darby seem to be a loving and emotionally generous couple. Both of them eschew the pursuit of conventional success. Are they really what they purport to be?

We are treated to hilarious scenes of Josh interviewing Ira Mandelstam (Peter Yarrow formerly of Peter, Paul & Mary) for his long-gestating documentary. Mandelstam is a hypercerebrotonic genius, who is seen discoursing on various abstruse topics.  However, he seemingly suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. As Mandelstam prattles on about lofty topics, he simultaneously slurps a bowl of soup. Josh keeps the camera rolling. Incongruously, he is oblivious to the fact that despite Mandelstam’s putative brilliance, an elderly man noisily consuming soup would not constitute usable footage for his documentary

Another funny scene depicts Josh obsequiously groveling for financing from a successful, young hedge fund manager (Ryan Serhant). The latter is a cultural Philistine, but thinks that financing a film would provide him with some sort of bragging rights. Alas, when Josh self-righteously proclaims the authenticity of his filmmaking, the businessman has no clue what he is blathering about.

“While We’re Young” addresses the traditional notion of intellectual property an its evolution. What does intellectual property even mean in the era of sampling and file sharing? According to Jamie, intellectual property is an anachronistic conceptual paradigm that holds no validity in the post-modernist era. Josh is appalled by this verbal posturing. So…what are we to make of Baumbach’s appropriation of footage from “Experiment on 114th Street,” a documentary by the Maysles Brothers. Baumbach presents it as being the work of his fictional documentarian, Leslie Breibart. Is this a wink to the audience? In the alternative, is Baumbach himself guilty of blatant intellectual property theft? Do such distinctions exist anymore or have they become moot?

Admittedly, “While We’re Young” does have  some provocative ideas and few funny moments scattered throughout it. The problem is that you’re never far removed from a thoroughly annoying scene, involving inherently odious characters.

Noah Baumbach is an exceedingly talented fellow. It is a shame to see him squander his gifts on another tribute to solipsism.

** R (for language) 97 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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