Life During Generational Wartime: Noah Baumbach’s ‘While We’re Young’

glassIt takes a long time for the word “entitled” to come up in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, but come up it does, and why wouldn’t it? Entitlement is the nerve that has sat exposed between Generations X and Y ever since the latter group graduated into the adult world and wondered where all the opportunity was. But Baumbach isn’t interested in the well-worn surface awkwardness between the young and the not-so-young, and so he turns the tables: “Entitled” is an epithet thrown by the forty-five year old Josh (Ben Stiller) at the twenty-five-ish Jamie (Adam Driver), but it’s thrown out of frustration rather than honesty. In reality, it’s Josh who feels entitled to something—to success, to admiration, to something. And why does he feel entitled? Because he’s waited long enough, dammit. In a contemporary atmosphere where we’re used to entitlement being nothing more than a bullet point in PowerPoint presentation about Millennials, Baumbach examines the condition’s true roots. Entitlement isn’t an inherited trait; it belongs to anyone who doesn’t know how to get what he wants.

When Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are introduced to Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), it’s as if they’ve found themselves staring into a time-warped mirror. Weren’t we young once? Weren’t we cool, or didn’t we at least feel cool? Weren’t we ambitious and spontaneous and optimistic? What happens to that feeling over time? We all know the answer: self-support muffles ambition, practicality supersedes spontaneity, and optimism is kept in check by arthritis and herniated discs. We combat time’s slings and arrows by doing to those dreaded young people exactly what they do to us when we get older: we co-opt their culture and values in an attempt to fool ourselves into feeling like one of them. They take our record collections and we take their cool hats.

In While We’re Young, Josh and Jamie are both aspiring documentarians. Because Josh is twenty years Jamie’s senior, the aspirations of the former are sad while those of the latter are admirable and endearing. Josh has been working on his latest film for ten years, and his explanations of what it’s about are fifty miles beyond convoluted. No one will fund him and his more successful father-in-law (Charles Grodin!) looks on him with pity, as a cautionary tale of wasted talent. Jamie’s approach to filmmaking is more instinctive, driven by curiosity rather than a desire to “say something.” Josh still has ambition but has lost focus; Jamie doesn’t need focus because his youthful sense of possibility guides him.

bikeIn his recent movies, Baumbach focuses on the ways in which priorities are altered at different stages of adulthood. 2010’s Greenberg found Stiller’s title character in the aftermath of his nineteenth nervous breakdown, taking his frustrations out on the younger people whose carefree nature he envies; 2012’s Frances Ha backtracked to the initial moving-on stage of adulthood that happens in the late twenties, when we’re faced with the choice to either cling pathetically to our youth or make the best of aging. These two worlds collide in While We’re Young, and the collision remains in mercifully capable hands. Many of the expected situations arise—the older couple trying to show their cool side around the youngsters, the horrifying exclusivity of “the baby cult”—but Baumbach’s strength, as always, is in diving straight into the uncomfortable center of human interactions. The younger generation may inherit the objectively (sometimes oppressively) cool attributes of their forebears, but they also get the bad stuff. Jamie is fun, but he’s also incredibly narcissistic; Darby is easygoing, but her breeziness can sometimes lapse into apathy, and that apathy allows her to be coerced and manipulated by the force of Jamie’s personality. Their life seems ideal, but only because Jamie is a good salesman and Darby doesn’t care enough to argue.

As the film progresses, Jamie repeatedly outshines Josh; youth, it would seem, wins the day. But youth, as we all know, will pass into age; the defining characteristic of youth is not freedom or enthusiasm, but the denial of age itself. By trying to reclaim their youth through the avatars of Jamie and Darby, Josh and Cornelia are torn apart. It isn’t that the young people have corrupted them, but that the older two have corrupted themselves by pretending not to be in their mid-forties. When they fight, they fight like teenagers, losing the capacity for reason that is supposed to come along with adulthood.

While We’re Young is really about the fact that, after twenty-five or so, none of us really want to believe that we’ve gone as far as we have down the mortal coil, so we take on the rebellious traits of our descendants long past the point where it makes sense. The baby cult is frightening not because of its suburbanness, but because it forces us to admit that life (and therefore youth) will continue after we’re gone. Having children isn’t required in order to become an adult, but to abstain purely out of principle is to act as if you’re the same person you were ten or twenty years ago. It’s just another form of clinging, and while I don’t entirely agree that the answer to accepting one’s age lies in procreation, I like that Baumbach forces his characters and the audience to confront future generations head-on. He knows it’s the only way to find peace.

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