While We’re Young touches on several themes: dependency on technology, the generational gap, and how having kids socially segregates people. Yet, director Noah Baumbach more than manages to keep us engaged so that we become subjects of one of the film’s larger disputes, truth vs. narrative.
Set in New York City, the film features Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a bland married couple who doesn’t know (or at least doesn’t openly admit) that they’re looking for something more exciting in their lives. Luckily, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), enter their world to give them a youthful boost.
Watts and Stiller are at the top of their game, each showing off their acting chops in completely different ways. Watts drastically changes her dramatic tone throughout the film, from freaking out in a baby dance class to getting her hip-hop grove on in the midst of her apartment. But Watts convincingly portrays Cornelia who is not having some deep soul-searching character transformation, but rather letting a few aspects of herself shine through.
As for Stiller, well he’s the same frustrated nostalgic male that he’s played in films like Greenberg and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. But unlike other actors who also play strictly to type, like Liam Neeson in action movie roles, Stiller infuses each new character with subtle differences that evoke nuanced responses from the audience. In Walter Mitty, Stiller is lovable yet antisocial, in Greenberg he’s a selfish void, and in While We’re Young, he’s something innbetween. We dislike Josh for his interest in having pretentious self-indulgent intellectual conversations, but at the same time he takes advantage of moments that he believes will change him for the better. For instance, when Josh tries to help his documentary protégé Jamie. This is out of character for Josh; he doesn’t usually accept the opportunity to work collaboratively. Even more, he takes a film editing suggestion from his father-in-law, even though the two don’t often see eye-to-eye.
With While We’re Young, Baumbach throws in a few unrealistic situations. The youthful couple, Jamie and Darby, take Josh and Cornelia to what is essentially a “throw-up party”. In the midst of hallucinating and puking, conflict over Cornelia and Josh’s marriage ensues. In no way is this scene believable or typical of a place where adults can have conversations about how people look at one another; yet, viewers will love the scenario. It’s fresh, original, funny, entertaining, etc. In this way Baumbach privileges narrative over the truth—truth being what’s representative of real life. But if fewer people are going to watch, how important is it to tell the truth?
This question brings us to the crux of the movie. As Jamie films a documentary on rekindling his relationship with a long lost childhood friend, his actions question the integrity of storytelling. Jaime sets himself and Josh up for scenes of fake personal reflection, just to evoke the emotion he wants from viewers. I may be influenced by my journalistic background, but it seems ridiculous that Jamie would get away with some of the things he does, this sets us up for an ending that’s nearly unfathomable. Yet I, along with the rest of the audience, kept my eyes glued to the screen. Part of it is because it’s great to watch Driver play the spontaneous asshole, a character he’s perfected in the hit TV series Girls and other movies like What if? —but also because what’s truthful, what’s real about life, is often boring.
And that’s the challenge filmmakers and people in general have.
Most of us have told a joke and embellishes a detail or two, so that everyone listening is entertained. Is that wrong? The problem with Josh’s own 10-year documentary project is that he is so focused on telling the whole truth, that his film becomes tiresome, or at the very least there are parts that people just don’t care to watch.
As a society, we’ve become desensitized to the truth because we repeat what’s realistic over and over again. So if it isn’t hurting anyone, maybe instead of the complete truth, it’s just better to tell a story.