Hipster Takedown: Noah Baumbach on While We're Young
While We're Young, the wise and witty new comedy from Noah Baumbach, throws a Gen X couple into Brooklyn's twenty-something hipster milieu. The Frances Ha director explains why young people both thrill and terrify him
How would you describe a Noah Baumbach film? The answer to this question would’ve been easier to articulate in 2012. Back then, Baumbach had a clear MO. He was known for a trio of films so caustic that they had to be watch through splayed fingers. There’s The Squid and the Whale, a tragicomic account of a couple’s divorce as seen through their teenage son’s eyes; Margot at the Wedding, a hilarious but painful to watch reunion between estranged sisters; and Greenberg, an acerbic character study following a 40-year-old carpenter who’s so misanthropic he makes Larry David look avuncular. These are brilliant, devastating movies, emotionally pitched between anguished sobs and bitter laughter. We figured Baumbach was a glass-half-empty type of guy.
With his last two films, however, he’s thrown a couple of curveballs. Frances Ha, from 2012, trades in the same comedy of awkwardness as those earlier films, but it contains none of their venom. Instead it’s an effervescent love letter to its feckless title character, a 27-year-old dancer (joyously played by Greta Gerwig) with an uncertain future but a spring in her step; Baumbach’s comedy tends to make audiences toes curl, but with Frances Ha he made them tap. Also tuned to C major is his latest film, While We’re Young, a razor-sharp comedy pitching Gen X against Gen Y that delivers one-liners and sight gags at a velocity that would make the Marx Brothers dizzy.
“I’m just trying to keep it interesting,” says Baumbach, his voice gentle and quiet over the phone when we ask about his recent films’ shift in tone. “When I was writing While We’re Young it was very much structured like a classic screwball comedy – like a comedy of marriage and remarriage. I felt a responsibility to follow that structure.”
Like Frances Ha, While We’re Young examines the world of twenty-something Brooklynites. But while the former was Baumbach’s ode to a hipster, While We’re Young is his evisceration of today’s retro-appropriating youth. If you’re the kind of person who rides a fixed-gear bike, makes your own organic ice cream and fetishises analogue technology (vinyl, VHS, typewriters) while also owning all of the latest Apple products, then this film will cut deep.
We follow documentary filmmaker Josh and producer Cornelia, a couple in their 40s who are winningly played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. Unlike all of their friends, including Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz), they’re resigned to not having kids. Despite the relative freedom this gives them, however, they’re stuck in a rut. They struggle to remember the last time they took a holiday, while a wild night for them has become an evening in with a bottle of wine binge-watching HBO shows on Netflix. That’s why meeting Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a pair of twenty-something hipsters who are spontaneous, wear rollerblades and attend hallucinogen-fuelled cleansing ceremonies, feels like such a tonic. The couples become fast friends and before long Josh is wearing skinny jeans instead of chinos and Cornelia is swapping pilates for hip-hop dance classes. “It's all about the thrill of being around young people,” says Baumbach. “And the sinking dread.”
Baumbach himself knows a thing or two about cross-generational friendships. The 45-year-old is currently in a relationship with Frances Ha's lead Greta Gerwig, who’s 31 and the very epitome of hip. Did this new romance and the making of Frances Ha, which is set in the same Brooklyn hipster milieu from which Jamie and Darby hail, help inform his latest film?
Baumbach doesn’t see much correlation: “A lot of these ideas are things I’ve had for a while,” he explains. “I’ve been wanting to figure out a way to write about couples and about marriage and about the interaction of couples and the projection that couples can place on one another. It’s finally found its way into this story. I was thinking of doing it right after Squid, but I just couldn’t figure it out, so in some ways I don’t feel quite in control of the timing of things. I feel like they kind of come when they come.”
Given the autobiographical nature of some of his movies, particularly The Squid and the Whale, which found him dissecting his own parents' breakup and dressing its lead, Jeff Daniels, in his father's clothes, it’s tempting to see his move to a more upbeat register as a reflection of his own personal life. Baumbach isn’t having any of it, though: “I don’t want it to remain entirely mysterious, it’s natural that people might look over the last few years and make judgements about the mood I was in when I made one or the other, but I guess I don’t look at it that way. I feel like over a long career I might veer one way or the other. These ones have gone in the direction of the more openly comic – I guess that’s what people are responding to.”
“It's all about the thrill of being around young people. And the sinking dread” – Noah Baumbach
One aspect of his personal life that Baumbach does concede to having informed his approach to While We’re Young is that he became a father in 2010. “Before I had a kid I had friends who had kids, and, you know, it’s... well... impossible to get as excited about other people’s kids as it is your own,” he says with a laugh. Like Josh and Cornelia, he felt abandoned by his close friends who were off starting families. “It’s a funny feeling as a grown person, to feel like you’re kind of being replaced by someone’s kid, and I wanted to show that in the movie. And then of course I’ve been on the other side of it too, having a child I’ve been transformed.”
A running theme in Baumbach’s films has been antagonistic relationships between parents and children. There’s a father figure in While We’re Young too: Charles Grodin (The Heartbreak Kid, Midnight Run) plays Josh’s father-in-law Leslie, a respected documentarian who mentored Josh early in his career. Unlike previous parental figures in Baumbach’s movies, however, Leslie is the most clued-up person on screen. When Josh shows Leslie the film he’s been toiling on for the best part of a decade, he says “you’ve made a six-and-a-half hour film that’s about seven hours too long.” He’s the movie’s voice of reason. Has becoming a dad softened his perspective on his own parents too? “Maybe the best way to say it is that when you have clear memories of your parents at ages that are either the same or younger than you are now, there’s a definite shift,” Baumbach explains. “You can no longer think of them as omnipotent, almighty people. You start to identify with the humanity of what it means to be a parent and also what it must have meant for them. You can have more empathy for them for that reason. You realise, What could they have known? You can’t help but reflect on that.”
Grodin’s wry presence calls to mind the era of films While We’re Young most evokes: the comedies of the 70s and 80s. “When I was an adolescent, people like James L Brooks and Mike Nichols and Sidney Pollack were making Broadcast News and Working Girl and Tootsie. Those films were meaningful to me when I was first starting to discover movies beyond kids’ movies.” These were comedies made within the studio system that were trying to say something significant about society and relationships. They were hilarious, but they were more than simply gag-delivery machines. “They’re really adult comedies, which were character-based and very funny; they could be broad but could also be serious. I wanted to do my version of that.”
With While We’re Young he succeeds. It’s packed with wit and vigour. It’s the kind of finely observed comedy Woody Allen might have made at the peak of his powers if he ever left his Upper East Side apartment and took the C-line across the East River. The satire is so potent, in fact, that the film could single-handedly kill off the fedora hat. Here’s hoping.