While We're Young

If I ran into a minotaur I don't think my first reaction would be "ah, the human bits are pretty good, but what's with this bull's head stuff? This mythological creature would be a lot more believable if it was just a regular dude." Of course I wouldn't say that because I would be busy expressing other more pressing sentiments like "what the fuck? These things really exist?" and "wait, don't minotaurs eat people?" But I also wouldn't criticize the minotaur's man-to-bull ratio because when you meet a physical object you intuitively understand that it is what it is and that wishing it to be some other way is a little silly.

Sadly, I do not have a similar pragmatism about art. I'll often see a movie and think "oh, I wish this had more of [x] and less of [y]" - even though I know that's not a particularly helpful insight, since the movie already is what it is.

Take for example While We're Young, the new comedy from writer / director Noah Baumbach. Ben Stiller stars as Josh, a middle aged documentarian whose life is in a slump, since his marriage has stagnated into a predictable routine and since he's been unable to figure out how to finish his most recent film project for several consecutive years. One day Josh is approached by a young hipster named Jamie who hopes to break into the documentary racket and the two of them quickly hit it off. Josh enjoys Jamie's company because it allows him to regain some of the youthful lust for life that he has recently been lacking, and Jamie enjoys Josh's company because the older man has a lot of insights that are very helpful for an ambitious but untested artist. However, their mentor-mentee relationship hits a roadblock once Josh starts to get suspicious that Jamie had ulterior motives for introducing himself. Is the young man just using his teacher as a way to meet other established filmmakers who could help him with his own career?

Now, there are two separate but related movies inherent in that set up. One is about a middle aged man who is trying to escape his mid-life crisis by mimicking a youth culture he doesn't completely understand, and that movie might play out a bit like a buddy comedy, since it's about the push and pull relationship between a fully grown man and an overgrown man-child. The other movie is about an earnest-but-naive purist who goes head to head with a hungry-but-unscrupulous opportunist, and that movie might play out like a drama, since the conflict between them would shed some light on a much bigger and more abstract question. The first movie doesn't interest me at all, but the second movie interests me greatly.

There are three reasons why I'm not interested in While We're Young's mid-life crisis-man-mimics-a-hipster storyline. 1) I'm not even fully middle aged myself but I've already seen enough men-in-mid-life crisis movies for an entire lifetime. Knock it off whiners! 2) I don't really care about making fun of the many pretentious habits that hipsters have adopted. It comes across as mean and condescending a lot more often than it comes across as funny, and even when it does come across as funny it still tends to feel like shooting fish in a barrel. I already understand that it's dumb to prefer typewriters over word processors so building an entire character around quirks like that is just belaboring any already overly labored point. 3) Most importantly, I think that While We're Young misunderstands Josh's real problem, which isn't related to his advanced age but rather to his own limited self-knowledge.

I don't think that a person's age has a lot to do with their level of self-comfort. I've known a lot of young people who were self-assured because they were naive about how the way the world really worked and I've known a lot of old people that were self-assured because they had survived enough difficult situations to have faith in their own abilities. I've also met a lot of young people who were insecure because they hadn't grown into their own skin and I've met a lot of old people who were insecure because life had kind of kicked the crap out of them and they didn't understand why. While We're Young is trying to present Josh's need to mimic Jamie's lifestyle as if it was a byproduct of his newfound fear of getting old - and it might be that in part - but I think it's much more about an unsure person lusting after a sure person's confidence. I honestly think that the character's ages are incidental to their relationship because Josh strikes me as the sort of person who was always hesitant and Jamie strikes me as the sort of person whose ego will always be massive. If you rewrote this script and changed the character's ages while keeping their self-consciousness at the same levels I think the plot would work still out in a fairly similar way. As such, I think a lot of this movie's insights into the differences between the two generations are kind of half baked.

In contrast, I think While We're Young's portrait of two artists who approach their art in wildly different ways is pretty compelling. I grew up in the grunge era, which was a time when there was a lot of discussion about the trade off between personal integrity and widespread success, and so I've always had some interest in that particular question. The contrast between Josh (who is exclusively about his own integrity, even at the expense of his art) and Jamie (who is exclusively about success, even to the detriment of his personal relationships) is drawn a little too cleanly for my tastes, but their relationship still ended up going in an interesting directions almost in spite of itself. While We're Young builds to a climax where Josh confronts Jamie at a fancy function at an art gallery, and it would have been easy for this movie to come down definitively on one side or the other, but it leaves the question more or less unsettled. Yes, one of them wins more support in the room than the other, but there are reservations on all sides, and it's obvious that both men are making imperfect art. It's a rare moment of ambiguity in a movie that would definitely be better if it was slightly less heavy handed.

I know that it's asinine to wish that While We're Young had stripped out it's old-vs-young elements in favor of emphasizing it's art-vs-commerce elements. After all, I totally understand why Noah Baumbach intertwined them - there is very real difference between how today's twenty somethings and forty somethings define the concept of "artistic integrity", so combining those two stories allows him to cross pollinate different perspectives relatively easily. Even more importantly: I'm well aware that the movie already is what it is and that wishing that it was some other way is utterly pointless. Still, I can't help but imagine a better version of this movie where it was one continuously interesting story rather than two intermittently interesting stories jammed together. After all, this might be my millionth mid-life crisis movie, and after seeing so many of them I can't help but nitpcik them. You can only give so many minotaurs a pass before you start to say to yourself "you know, the abs are fine, but wouldn't he be more handsome if he lost the horns?"

Winner: Draw

While We're Young on IMDB