Time flies they say, and with the passing of all those hours, minutes and seconds, goes any sense of spontaneity, curiosity or sparkling joie de vivre.
So goes the usual view of things which posits that the young are vital and engaged while those who have reached middle age or beyond, are moribund and listless, trapped in ennui and disillusionment so strongly pronounced it would take an air-to-surface to shake it apart.
It’s all very cut-and-dry, black-and-white, and in most movies, done-and-dusted as a plot conceit.
But then Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, Francis Ha) writer/director/producer, doesn’t make most movies, and so chooses to approach this well-worn idea of the great generational divide and the conflict that supposedly pervades it, from a different angle than most.
In Baumbach’s world, some of the assumptions about the different stages of life we all go through do hold true – we do become more risk averse as we age, more used to routine, less favourable to late nights, new experiences and the idea that just around the corner waits nirvana (the paradise, not the band).
But many others aren’t quite so on the money.
Take the central couple in While We’re Young, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a forty something couple who, unlike all their friends, haven’t had kids (not for want of trying), still argue they are spontaneous and could go to Paris anytime they want – they don’t – and are well-established in careers that at least in Josh’s case as a documentary filmmaker have become a little sclerotic.
Their relationship too has seen better days though it is not in any way broken or irreparable; they have simply gone from being “Oh wow we’re married” to just married as one of them observes early on in the course of the film.
So far so cliched right?
But that’s where Baumbach upends things more than a little.
For all their fulfillment of the middle-aged cliche, they are open to new and exciting things even if at the time we meet them that amounts to owning iPods, iPads and a well-used Netflix account.
Just how willing they are to upend the static nature of their well-established lives becomes evident when feisty, energetic twenty-something couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) who seem to be in possession of everything Josh and Cornelia belatedly realise they’ve lost.
They’re adventurous, intensely creative, have a home filled with all the essentials of hipster life including all the items, so Cornelia wryly observes, that she and Josh have thrown out such as LPs, VHS tapes, and a typewriter, and thanks to Jamie’s ambition to be a documentary filmmaker just like Josh, and his father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a shared love of the visual medium.
It sounds like a friendship, and is at first, a friendship made in heaven, and before they know it Josh and Cornelia have unconsciously eschewed their middle aged friends and their staid weekends in the country and their perfectly-staged parties in favour of joining Jamie and artisanal ice cream maker Darby at an Ayahuasca ceremony to find themselves, a hip hop exercise class and bike rides around New York City (curtailed only by Josh discovering he has arthritis, a reminder his body is not quite keeping up with his spirit, no matter how zestful it now is).
But as is the way of things, the honeymoon, one punctuated by a great deal of fun and much observational humour, can only last so long and Josh and Cornelia discover that for all the youth and vigour they have regained, there are some elements of Jamie and Darby’s freewheeling, try-everything-once lifestyle that don’t quite work for them.
Rather than set this up at some sort of lazy inter-generational conflict though, a wholesale rending of the close relationship that has also seen the two couples closely collaborating on a film project of Jamie’s – one that becomes so successful that Josh, whose latest film has taken 10 years to make and is yet to be finished, finds himself having an unexpected middle aged crisis of sorts – Baumbach rather cleverly steers away from an us-and-them mentality in favour of an exploration of what it is that makes these peoples’ lives work and not work and why.
There is an adversarial element to it of course, channelled most directly through Josh who doesn’t handle the ebbing of the friendship well, but this doesn’t take the form you might expect it to, with Baumbach, who has an eye for observing and distilling the quirks of human nature and the nuanced way they play themselves out in real life, choosing to present them as simply different stages of life rather than good or bad.
If anything, he probably lands on the side of Josh and Cornelia, no surprise since he is a man of a certain forty-something age himself, allowing us to see that it may be they, for all their well-worn life decisions, that actually have the healthier relationship, the more genuine and engaged approach to life.
But then that is only brought to light by their interactions with Jamie and Darby, who though they are ultimately not as free and together as they first come across, are nonetheless not the narrative-driving car wrecks the average filmmaker would make them out to be.
In fact, so well-wrought are Baumbach’s characterisations, that you emerge from While We’re Young appreciating anew that no stage of life is good or bad; his message, if there is one, is that as long as we are true to ourselves, a lesson Josh and Cornelia take on board with gusto in time, then that’s all you need to worry about.
Authenticity is ultimately the key here, the idea being that no matter where we are in life, we should only ever strive to embrace what makes us happy, irrespective of who’s looking on and possibly judging you, if we’re going to get any real joy or fulfilment out of life.