Film & TV

Director Noah Baumbach Talks While We’re Young and “Totems of Middle Age”

Written by Sam Skelding

While We’re Young director Noah Baumbach shares his thoughts on comedic inspiration, middle age fears and the generation gap.

Released in cinemas on Good Friday, While We’re Young is a satirical comedy about a documentary maker and his wife, Josh and Cornelia (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), who are both rescued from their middle-aged stupor by a younger hipster couple. After turning away from their family-obsessed friends in an attempt to recapture the lost energy of youth through new friends Jamie and Darbie, the pair instead end up learning about their own fears around aging and their simultaneous desire for parenthood.

WWY is rife with emotional drama, but at its throbbing heart lies a stylish, edgy comedy featuring one of the genre’s big-hitters (along with an excellent supporting cast!) Baumbach has worked with Ben Stiller before in 2010’s Greenberg, to which While We’re Young is something of a spiritual successor. “I love working with Ben and I wanted to have more relation to his comic iconography, but bring it into my environment.”

Character dissection 

Baumbach’s environment is an interesting one. In addition to the works of Woody Allen, he attributes much of his comedic inspiration to the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, many of which featured a strong female protagonist at odds with a male counterpart, often testing their masculinity in the process.

This is definitely explored in WWY, as Josh’s wife Cornelia shows resentment over his inability to make decisive progress on his floundering documentary project whilst her career as a producer thrives. These detours in the characters’ journeys are described by Baumbach as a critical component of his storytelling, again harking back to those screwball comedies that were such an important part of his own early days as an aspiring writer-director. He admits to taking pleasure in “pulling the characters apart in order to put them back together.”

This comedy tradition of taking detours to come full circle again is apparent in every aspect of the film. Josh and Cornelia take a journey where they must rediscover the zeal and earnestness of their earlier years, whilst Jamie and Darby are still figuring out the kind of people they want to be, carrying all the contradictions of youth.

“Ben’s projection onto Darbie and Jamie is unsustainable”, says Baumbach. “It is initially sweet that he is inspired by them… but he is looking for something that they can’t give.”

This is characterised by Josh’s increasing frustration when Jamie doesn’t live up to his own image of his younger self, as though he sees Jamie as a son that hasn’t heeded his father’s advice about the value of integrity and now resents him as a consequence.

Yet the director never intended Jamie (Adam Driver) to come across as a bad person; in fact, it’s only Josh’s expectations that set him up for a fall. “I probably have more in common with Jamie, in that I’m in touch with my ambition and can be creatively ruthless”, adds Baumbach.

Certainly, Jamie isn’t a perfect role model – he does whatever it takes to succeed whilst claiming to be above such ideals – but you can’t help but respect his youthful ambition. In a way, it’s only through him that Josh is able to draw the masculine energy to complete his work, restore his marital relationship and ultimately find the bravery to become a father.

Meanwhile, Josh has the sort of wisdom that can only be gained from age; a maturity that is characteristic of Baumbach’s films. Perhaps the message is that we should simply combine the energy of youth with the wisdom of growing older.

A ‘remix’ society

Themes and conflicts are juggled deftly throughout the razor-sharp comedy, not least of which the sense of an older generation resenting the young for repurposing all the cultural styles that they had long since abandoned, consequently wanting those things back.

“There is an undercurrent of technology in the film, however I think it’s a timeless conflict. There is always going to be this feeling of seeing people in their youth and wanting to go back to that. In my twenties, I felt an anxiety of things moving too quickly.” 

Baumbach describes this behaviour as a “totem of middle age”, a phenomenon which sees Ben Stiller’s character take to wearing a trilby hat whilst admiring Jamie and Darby’s extensive vinyl collection (a technology Josh had set aside in favour Netflix and iPads!) This attitude of cultural uprooting of the past is current in today’s ‘remix’ society, especially with the internet, but WWY is about more than just contemporary issues.

Timeless

At its heart, While We’re Young could be about returning to a youth that has passed too quickly. It’s certainly a universal fear, particularly as Josh and Cornelia find themselves trapped by friends whose entire lives appear to revolve around parenthood.

Despite this, Baumbach wanted the takeaway to be an uplifting one. Josh and Cornelia learn to switch off the idiot box and rediscover things like local culture, art and just having fun. They learn to accept that they can’t have the world on a platter like Jamie and Darby believe in their childlike ignorance, finding the courage to build a life on the things that really matter to them.

Baumbach himself admits that “middle age brings its own rewards but has doors that can’t be opened.” Perhaps While We’re Young’s greatest success is that it captures a dual sense of both the freedoms and necessary sacrifices of middle age.

Free from the contradictions and false starts of youth, as well as the naïve desire to discover absolutely everything that life has to offer, Stiller and Watts’ characters are able to focus on what’s really important and regardless of your age, this makes for pretty inspiring viewing.

While We’re Young is out now in UK cinemas.

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