Like Woody Allen, writer and director Noah Baumbach has always inclined towards the pretentious in showcasing his highbrow credentials. Thus in his most recent film, “While We’re Young,” he quotes dialogue from Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” The lines specifically refer to the play’s opportunistic and middle-aged architect-protagonist, Solness, and his paranoia regarding young people.
What follows, however, is much closer to old Hollywood than Henrik Ibsen, most notably, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve,” with which this film bears a striking similarity both in narrative and theme.
In the Mankiewicz classic, Bette Davis is a much-admired veteran Broadway actress, Margo Channing who is, nonetheless, at that troublesome stage for women in the profession, middle-age, when leading roles are harder to come by. It is in this vulnerable moment in her life that Margo meets a stage struck young admirer, Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter, who appealing to Margo’s insecurity-driven vanity, has Margo unofficially adopt her, employing Eve as her personal assistant.
Little does Margo suspect, however, that Eve has an agenda, as well as a personal history quite different than the one she relates when they first met. By the end of the film, Eve has gone from admiring to annexing as she takes over Margo’s career.
Hence, despite his allusion to Ibsen and his verbal and visual nods throughout “While We’re Young” to what is hip and trendy in 21st century New York City, what underscores Baumbach’s latest venture is old-fashioned melodrama.
Thus, the Bette Davis and Anne Baxter roles are assumed by Ben Stiller and Adam Driver, the former as a once-promising documentary filmmaker, Josh Schrebnick, who has let his potential fall by the wayside in middle-age as labors (or perhaps belabors) on a project that has consumed the last ten years of his life. His career as a university lecturer has long since supplanted what Josh imagined would be his calling.
Josh’s personal life, unfortunately, provides little in the way of compensation for his professional shortcomings. While their friends are moving ahead with their goals of raising families, Josh’s wife, Cornelia, has suffered a series of miscarriages. Cornelia is also the daughter of a “legendary” documentary filmmaker, Charles Breitbart, played by Charles Grodin, and this only serves as further humiliation for Josh in not matching his father-in-law’s status.
Thus, like Margo, Josh is vulnerable to flattery, and when he encounters Adam Driver’s aspiring filmmaker, Jamie Massey, and his bohemian wife, Darby (played by Amanda Seyfried), he is too-eager to become Jamie’s mentor after the latter expresses his admiration for Josh’s early work, which made his reputation.
In addition, while Jamie emotionally seduces Josh, he literally, if tentatively, seduces Cornelia, and for a while, the older couple is reinvigorated by the attention and high spirits of the younger couple.
Jamie soon persuades Josh to assist him on a documentary that has the possibility of making a name for the young auteur. Josh enthusiastically obliges, but he eventually comes to realize that like Anne Baxter’s Eve, Jamie is not above taking liberties with the truth and taking advantage of other people for his own mercenary motives.
Charles Grodin’s role, as a seasoned and cynical veteran in the New York film scene who has seen it all recalls the cynical theater critic, Addison DeWitt, played by George Sanders in the Mankiewicz film. Like Addison DeWitt, Charles Breitbart is not shocked by Jamie’s duplicity. Rather, the veteran filmmaker accepts the lies in Jamie’s breakthrough movie as the price to pay for producing, as Breitbart puts it, “a good story.”
Noah Baumbach grew up in New York as the son of “Village Voice” film critic, Georgia Brown, and so one can presume he has more inside knowledge of what goes on in the local filmmaking scene than most of his audience.
Even so, Baumbach’s moralizing here is dubious at best. The late Andrew Sarris wrote that for all its virtues, “All About Eve” had one shortcoming in that it never broached what Margo herself did to become famous in her youth. In this sense, “While We’re Young” is outright ludicrous in never even hinting that Josh, when he was a young and aspiring documentarian, had any ulterior motives in marrying the daughter of a much-admired success in the field. This unfortunately, gives the film a mildly unpleasant odor of manipulative dishonesty that makes Jamie’s amorality smell like a rose by comparison.
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