Back when millenials were pups, I was employed for a while developing largely formulaic thrillers for cable TV. We had a lot of fun with them, but at the end of the day, they were just cheesy thrillers, with a few notable exceptions. A sow's ear will never be a silk purse. One afternoon a colleague walked into my office and, frustrated, tossed a script in development on my desk with a declaration: You know we can easily write one of these together.
We had, in fact, on our first days on the job in largely deserted offices over Christmas break, been tasked with re-conceiving the problematic plot of a black widow story titled Praying Mantis. We holed up in one office together; there was much giggling, and we couldn't believe we were getting paid to do this. A couple of weeks later there was an excruciatingly uncomfortable meeting with the original writer; a convivial one one with the star and the director; one of the company's seasoned faves was later brought on to execute the rewrite. As you can see from the poster, the thriller was made and the network was happy. Icing on the wedding cake, the lead actress ended up marrying the director.
Fast forward a couple of years and several cheesy thrillers later to my colleague's proposition. I declined for a few reasons, chief among them being consumed with Doing My Job (which now included shepherding the occasional highbrow movie, like an adaptation of Willa Cather's My Antonia, and activities like brainstorming classic thrillers to riff off with one of our best writers in the van on location).
And so we beat on in the development mill, cranking out about ten films a year. One day the colleague came in gushing about a script she'd gotten and waving her coverage of it (yes, we did everything from reading and script coverage to overseeing production). The story was right up our alley. Our boss loved the basic script, and it was rushed into development and production. And yes, not only had my colleague (with her husband) authored the script under a pseudonym, but she had pretended it had been a submission from an agent and had written rave coverage of her own screenplay!
I was aghast at this deception. It seemed so unethical and manipulative. And unnecessary--the project fit our bill and we would have bought it anyway.
Which brings me to writer-director Noah Baumbach's latest film, While We're Young.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!
In the movie, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are a childless couple in their 40s having trouble relating to friends with babies (not unlike Jennifer Aniston in Nicole Holofcener's Friends With Money.) The couple encounters and are befriended by a twenty something couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried.
The younger couple rejuvenates the older, and soon enough, Stiller is wearing a pork pie hat, Watts is taking a hip hop dance class, and all four go on a purging/bonding psychedelic trip. So Baumbach takes the set up for a classic thriller (the strange couple insinuating themselves into the protagonists' lives), but fashions it into a comic love fest of manners, inverting expectations of the genre.
But of course, idylls don't last forever, and reality bites (sorry, Ben Stiller; couldn't resist that). Stiller's character Josh is a documentary filmmaker who's been stuck on his latest bloated project for at least a decade, and he pridefully refuses constructive editing feedback from his father-in-law Leslie, an esteemed documentary filmmaker played by Charles Grodin. Instead, Josh puts his energy into mentoring Driver's Jamie, also an aspiring documentary filmmaker. As the rejuvenated Josh and Cornelia (Watts) lose their forty something identities, they also lose the friendships of their procreating peers. Add a little dramatic irony (Jamie's ever-recording mini-camera, seen on the dash in the first pic above, his staying behind in a restaurant to chat with Leslie after Josh leaves), and the benign comedy begins inversion back to potential thriller (or at least dark comedy) mode.
The plot sickens. Young Jamie has by now artistically ingratiated himself with Leslie, resulting in Leslie's (with daughter Cornelia, his long time producer) co-producing the documentary that Jamie's directing, while Josh finds himself reduced to camera operator and even--to Josh's chagrin--actor. Jamie has effectively supplanted Josh, who finally puts it all together: Jamie and Darby engineered meeting him and Cornelia to jump start Jamie's career. Act 2 ends with Josh, mad as hell at the manipulation and not going to take it anymore, picking up his camera again to turn the tables on Jamie and expose him to Leslie and Cornelia.
Josh goes full throttle with his exposé of the young couple at an awards gala for Leslie. It doesn't go well for Josh. Moreover, Leslie, by this time artistically engaged with and invigorated by Jamie's project, is nonplussed by Jamie's chutzpah. He shrugs it off; it's a DIY world now, after all. And a seemingly innocent, puzzled Jamie reminds Josh that he did, after all, willingly act in a scene in the documentary.
It's interesting to me how Baumbach plays with genre in this film, how adroitly he's able to invert expectations and then flip them again and later satisfy them in ways that are ultimately conventional yet still surprising. In a recent Los Angeles Times feature, Baumbach noted that, with this film, he'd had "more of an idea of structure and story" than with previous films, in which he had let the characters lead the arc of the narrative.
What I also loved about the film was its tone--its ability to both poke fun at and convey affection for the mores of both generations: the millennials who, without irony, eschew technology (Jamie uses an IBM Selectric and has a wall of vinyl; Josh, admiring the records, notes that he has a lot of the same albums...except his are all on CDs). Josh and Cornelia's friends gush insufferably about the joys of parenthood, but Josh's best male friend (played by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) can also admit that he's bored being a stay-at-home dad--and he has a mini-meltdown over a missing Wilco CD. (The film also has a terrific soundtrack scored by James Murphy.)
Speaking of times and changing mores, in a Q & A after a screening of the film, Baumbach talked about having 80s films in mind while making this one--Kramer vs. Kramer in particular, in which Dustin Hoffman plays a career-centric man who expects wife (Meryl Streep) to stay at home to take care of their son--until she can't take it anymore and leaves.
Baumbach said he'd had costume designer Ann Roth put Stiller in the army jacket reminiscent of Hoffman's and had Watts's hair styled like Streep's.
Even in this homage, Baumbach is underscoring that that was then; this is now. Every generation has to find its own way, and perhaps we all need to accept, adapt, and sometimes to just...adopt.
Maybe my former colleague was a millennial before her time. Maybe she gave me a life lesson: you can't get no satisfaction from being a dedicated worker bee alone. Baumbach's last two films suggest a possible hopeful balance between the exigencies of life and our aspirations: as Greta Gerwig puts it in her and Baumbach's Frances Ha, "Sometimes it's good to do what you're supposed to do when you're supposed to do it." Frances takes the desk job and she gives up the dancing she's not really doing to become a choreographer.
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