Growing Up Baumbach

The director of While We’re Young talks about his latest project.

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If While We’re Young leaves you itching to know whether the footage Adam Driver’s character shoots via a conspicuous GoPro camera will ever make it on the Blu-Ray as a special feature, prepare for disappointment: it’ll never see the light of day. “Part of the problem is that if we showed anything in Jamie’s movie it would involve the entire camera crew and me and everyone,” according to director Noah Baumbach, “because he’s always shooting Ben [Stiller], and the camera is shooting Jamie.” There you have it, completionists—there will be no deleted scenes showing us the world through the underhanded hipster avatar’s palm-sized lens.

Last week Baumbach made an appearance at Boston’s “unofficial film school,” the famed Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, as the capstone on A24’s “Growing Up Baumbach” retrospective. The two-night event began with a triple feature one evening (including Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, and Frances Ha), and a screening of the director’s latest, While We’re Young, the next, with Baumbach himself in attendance for a post-screening Q&A.

That’s an awful lot of upper middle class caucasian existential ennui to absorb in just 48 hours. But While We’re Young is as comically mercurial as Baumbach’s earlier works are uncomfortable. The film, in which middle-aged married couple Josh and Cornelia (Stiller and Naomi Watts) have their lives upturned after befriending the younger, aggravatingly cool Jamie and Darby (Driver and Amanda Seyfried), bridges Baumbach’s work from ’90s and the aughts to his output in the the current decade, where he uses millennial chronicles as his focal point. (Arguably, Baumbach has always been making movies about millennials, but perhaps that’s another thought for another time.) The laughs here don’t catch in your throat as much as you might expect—mercifully, none of the film’s characters habitually wipe their semen on library books—so by the time Baumbach took the stage, the audience was already warmed up for him, having spent the better part of the last hour and forty minutes guffawing and giggling.

But despite its comedic efficacy, While We’re Young remains prickly in its own way. The film revels in the awkward, whether during a pathetically desperate public confrontation between Stiller’s floundering 40-something protagonist and Driver’s smug, entitled hipster usurper, or a drug-fueled shamanic vision quest, or an ill-advised jaunt to a children’s sing-along, which ultimately proves to be the picture’s most horrific moment. Baumbach has outfitted his plot with teeth—rows and rows of them—but the jokes are as wacky as they are acerbic, and regardless of their tenor, While We’re Young ultimately arrives at a bittersweet, honest conclusion about striking out into middle age. It isn’t a feel-good movie, but it may make you feel good anyways (even if babies are kind of terrifying).

For Baumbach, that emotionally mixed climax is exactly the point. “I think it was less about [Josh and Cornelia] having a kid than it was about acknowledging that it wasn’t going to happen the way they thought it would, and being aspirational under circumstances that were maybe different than you thought,” he told the Brattle’s assembled patrons. “Ben’s character, at the end, acknowledges that there are things that aren’t going to happen for him now, you know, that it isn’t about possibility anymore, that you have to make compromises and make decisions that aren’t going to always match how you might have envisioned it. But that’s great, too. Better things can happen, too. So I felt like that’s what that was for me, that they were kind of finding a way to do it that wasn’t what they thought it would be.”

While We’re Young has a lot on its mind leading up to that final lingering image, particularly as regards the matter of authenticity in documentaries. For many viewers, those details will trump the development of Josh’s and Cornelia’s arc as a couple. But don’t let the documentarian through-line fool you: this is a movie that’s about couples first and foremost. In fact, the documentary angle didn’t crop up until after Baumbach conceptualized his narrative’s matrimonial basis. “A little while ago, I wanted to write something about couples. I had this idea, even after [The Squid and the Whale], I started writing something that was nothing like this. It was more about, I don’t know, how couples are with other couples—if you act differently, if you feel better about yourself based on the other people. It was a totally different thing, but it wasn’t any good.

“So I scrapped it, made a few movies, and the idea was still kind of circulating, and I guess it just found its way into this story of, in some ways, thinking about middle age, and thinking about changes, and still thinking you’re one age when you’re really another age. And that’s sort of what became this movie. Then I had to come up with an occupation for them, so the documentary thing came later.”

The tension Josh experiences with Jamie, a budding documentary filmmaker himself, over their pursuits supplies the film’s conflict, of course, so it may come as a surprise to learn that that conflict boils down to a choice in occupation. (What if Baumbach had come up with “food truck owner” as an occupation instead? Can anyone imagine what Chef would look like with him at the helm?) But if Baumbach simply picked Josh’s career out of a hat, he approached in in full earnestness on the page.  “Once I made them documentarians,” he explained, “I felt like I had to kind of take this seriously and engage in a conversation about it, and have the characters argue about it. It was kind of an argument I felt comfortable presenting but not solving, you know? My job, I felt, was that I was making a comedy about a marriage, and I needed to solve that, or bring that to a conclusion as far as the movie was concerned, and make that satisfying. The other stuff, the stuff about technology, about authenticity in art, I’m just gonna let the characters go at it and I’ll duck out. Maybe other people have some interesting things to say about it.”

Authenticity is just as big of an element as middle-age woes in the film, too, specifically authenticity in the pursuit of one’s craft. That’s what Josh’s battle of wills with Jamie comes to a head over: Jamie fibs, connives, deceives, and twists the truth to satisfy his purposes, which is anathema to Josh. When While We’re Young’s credits start rolling, there’s a depressing sense that Josh has lost the battle for authenticity, but Baumbach has a different perspective on what the film’s resolution means for authenticity. “In the moment, I guess, it does lose, but I think Ben’s looking for a kind of authenticity in his life, and what he’s making Jamie into and the search he’s pursuing there is quixotic. I mean, unmasking Jamie, even if anyone cared, isn’t really going to do anything. Ben needs to figure out something for himself. It’s a different kind of authenticity that he does find, even if it’s not supported by the culture.”

The characters’ concerns over authenticity aren’t felt just in their careers, either, but in terms of how they operate in 2015’s tech-crazed society. While We’re Young contrasts the retro appropriation of Jamie and Darby against the far more modern tendencies of Josh and Cornelia, who gladly pull out their smartphones in the blink of an eye to look up information that they can’t recall on their own. That technological disparity raises questions about how “real” the film’s quartet of principals really are, and whether there’s something genuine about Jamie’s and Darby’s fascination with vinyl records and VHS versus Josh’s and Cornelia’s obsession with their iPhones.

Turns out it’s all in done in the name of good humor. “Yeah, that was just a joke,” Baumbach admitted. “I felt like it was something I’d seen, that was true of some people I knew in their 20s. I felt like in a way, if you’d grown up with the Internet and certain kinds of technology, you were kind of freed up to go backward because you know all that stuff, whereas if you’re of a certain age you feel this requirement to learn it, and then before you know it, you’re addicted to it. I felt like it’s destroyed these people in their 40s who didn’t grow up this way, and younger people kind of know how to use it better. They have this sort of luxury, in a way, to go buy records. I thought it was a funny enough joke that it merited the montage.”

All the same, nobody should be blamed for reading the clash between boomers and gen-xers as  comment on Baumbach’s contemporaries; the film feels very much like a millennial mockery, with Josh, frustrated after spending close to a decade toiling over a single project, standing in as sort of a Baumbach surrogate. He’s an old man yelling at his neighbor’s teenage kids to get the hell off of his lawn. Yet Baumbach doesn’t see While We’re Young as autobiographical, and if he identifies with any of his characters, it’s actually Jamie: “With this movie, I think people assume that I side with Ben, or that there’s something that might be true about my autobiography with Ben. But I actually feel more in common with Jamie in terms of his ambition, his comfort level with ambition, and his productivity. It’s much more something I understand in a way. It’s not that I don’t have empathy for getting stuck. I’ve certainly felt stuck before. But I don’t relate to working on the same movie for ten years. All my movies are personal. I don’t think of myself as autobiographical.

So how did Baumbach go from his nugget of a starting place and wind up with the finished product? Is While We’re Young the film he meant to make all along? “It’s a hard question to answer, because of course I mean all of it. At the same time, it’s a movie. It’s not a poem or even a short story. There are so many stages. Part of what I really love about making movies is that when I’m writing the script it’s one thing. I’m a writer and I’m working on all of that stuff, and like anyone who writes anything, some days are great, some days are horrible. Then when you cast people, it becomes a whole new thing. And once you photograph it and put it in the world…” He trails off, but everybody gets the idea. Film is alchemical. It changes irrevocably from one part of the process to the next.

“So when you come to the Brattle and get asked about the intent of things, a lot of times I don’t know,” Baumbach continued. “I understand wanting to know if something was meant, because that’s what you got, but I feel like what you get is what the movie is trying to do in some way.

“As long as it’s positive. If it’s negative you’re wrong,” he jokes. “So obviously the movie has arguments that are put out there and stuff, but it’s not political. I’m really trying to make an entertainment. So it’s near impossible for me to go back and unravel it, and unpack it, and tell you again why I did what I did, and I’m impressed when people can do that. For me, once it’s the final movie, great. It’s gone. And then I’m onto something else.”

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently he has given up on shaving.

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