while-were-young-poster-700x1093“The younger generation — it means retribution, you see. It comes, as if under a new banner, heralding the turn of fortune.”
—Henrik Ibsen, The Master Builder

I don’t believe that was one of a series of too many quotes that popped up on a black background in silence at the start of While We’re Young, but it probably best represents the sense of dread the film was trying to capitalize on. In a society that has become so post-cultural and progressive, it gets a little hard to get old, and no one seems more obsessed with transmitting that than writer/director Noah Baumbach (follow my tag for the director on this blog to read reviews for Greenberg and Frances Ha).

For those getting a little tired of Baumbach’s recurring theme of the challenges of growing old and letting go of youth, While We’re Young may disappoint, but it is worth sticking through for a confrontation with reality that is powerful as Greenberg fishing out the unrecognizable dead animal out of a house pool as younger people reveled around him. In While We’re Young, however, the moment feels more grounded, less metaphorical and ultimately, more disturbingly real. Baumbach still has that special touch for capturing moments resonant with revelation without coming across as heavy-handed. It’s a special kind of moment in cinema that few writer/directors can pull off (his hero Eric Rohmer comes to mind).

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After the lengthy Ibsen passage, we meet middle age Gen Xers Josh (Ben Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), as they struggle to tell an infant the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” When both forget how the story goes, they begin to argue about their memory of it. Meanwhile, the baby bursts into tears. The implication is that these two are parents, but the child’s cries rattle them. Soon, their friends, the babe’s actual mother (Maria Dizzia) and father (Adam Horovitz — Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys!), arrive to scoop their child up. It’s a cute play on perception and a quick, efficient device to establish these characters, who still haven’t found a way to come to terms with adulthood.

Though all their friends seem to be having children, it soon becomes apparent that Josh and Cornelia are in a mid-life crisis of arrested development. Josh is a documentary filmmaker with one well-received movie under his belt that’s out of print and so old that you can only find it on the secondhand market on VHS. He’s stuck in a rut with his follow-up, now about 10 years in the making and clocking in with a run-time of 10 hours that he cannot seem to pare down. Then he meets a 20-something fan, Jamie (Adam Driver), who melts Josh’s heart by admitting his fandom and saying he spent some stupid price on eBay to obtain an original VHS copy of the movie. They become fast friends.

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Josh finds new vicarious youth in Jamie and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), and easily pulls Cornelia into hanging out with them. After all, Cornelia is stuck in her own rut. She still works for her father Leslie (Charles Grodin, in remarkable deadpan mode), a legend in documentary cinema who is more active than Josh. While Leslie accumulates awards, Josh struggles to find grant money to continue his work.

Stagnation is a big thing for the middle-aged couple, as Watts — stellar at balancing pathos and humor — reveals her character’s embarrassment about being in her 40s and working for her dad with leaden reserve. It’s a heavy regret, but she has found a way to live with it, yet you can sense her feeling that life has passed her by. At another point in the film she says about having a child, “We missed our chance … I’m fine with that.” There’s a sad acceptance to the statement. Thus, Josh and Cornelia embrace the vicarious opportunity that the millennial couple offers them as if they were salvation incarnate. Darby is an entrepreneur, marketing homemade ice cream featuring incongruous Ben & Jerry’s flavors of her own design. Meanwhile, Jamie aspires to make his own documentary films. The 20-somethings offer a new life. Who needs a baby when you have fully grown children to hang out with?

At first, Josh and Cornelia are delighted by this new breed of human they have discovered: young, prototypical Brooklyn hipsters who have re-purposed the detritus of Gen X and curated it in interesting ways. When Josh and Cornelia, stop into the earthy studio apartment of Jamie and Darby, they are confronted with racks of vinyl records, albeit mostly thrift store throw aways from the likes of Phil Collins and Lionel Richie. Cornelia observes, “It’s like their apartment is filled with stuff we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it.” It’s as though the new generation has co-opted their generation’s popular trash whose only merit is that it is “vintage.” Look, there’s a cassette of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell on the dashboard of Jamie’s old sedan. As any grounded member of Gen X should know, that album was never cool. However, Josh is too smitten to notice these clues of phoniness. When Jamie plays “Eye of the Tiger” to get Josh pumped for a meeting with a possible investor in his film, Josh tells Jamie, “I remember when this song was just considered bad.” But he starts bobbing to it, and adds, “but it’s working.”

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There’s a witty sort of dramatic irony going on here. The idea of sincerity is different for these two. While Josh says he is struggling to make “a film that’s both materialist and intellectual at the same time,” Jamie says he is looking to present “the truth” with his movie, which, as Josh will come to learn, does not necessarily mean being strictly honest in the literal sense. When Jamie volunteers to help Josh with his documentary, Josh will finally come to understand the gulf between them. Finally, he tells Cornelia about Jamie, “It’s all a pose. It’s like he once saw a sincere person, and he’s imitating him all the time!”

Josh is such a dynamically drawn character and Stiller brings an empathetic sincerity to his struggle via yet another richly written part by Baumbach. It’s a shame you cannot say the same about the women, who have issues and complexities of their own. Watts raises many small moments with Cornelia to impressive height, but the character’s standout moment with her friend/nemesis, Darby, happens during a hip-hop dance class, where she gradually finds her groove to awkward effect, played for cheap laughs. Even less fulfilling of a character is Darby whose character is hardly given a chance to transcend her artisanal ice cream flavors. Like Cornelia, it feels as though she is only along for the ride. That these women feel like supporting players in what should be an ensemble film is such a shame, especially considering how terrific the women characters were drawn in Baumbach’s previous movie, Frances Ha, featuring a screenplay he co-wrote with the film’s star, Greta Gerwig.

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But maybe this is Josh’s movie for a reason. The fact that our hero is a filmmaker and male and is even more sympathetic than Stiller’s last role in a Baumbach movie (Greenberg), will make some wonder if Josh is a surrogate for Baumbach (the Internet has theorized might Jamie be a stand-in for director Joe Swanberg? In this radio interview, Baumbach denied this). It also takes a certain sense of self-awareness to pull this kind of movie off. One has to be ready to laugh about oneself, and Baumbach has always been fearless about that. That’s why, when the end finally arrives and Josh finally confronts Jamie, the film offers a brilliant play on perspective. As Josh’s father-in-law becomes accepting of Jamie and his vision of “truth,” Jamie warps into a stranger to Josh. In this resonant penultimate scene, Baumbach reveals how both base slapstick and intellectual wit can work together so brilliantly by playing with audience anticipation and textured characters.

Despite a final scene that feels a bit too tidy, While We’re Young examines the complexity of change from one generation to the next as a vicious cycle that never releases its grip unless you learn to make yourself comfortable in it. After all, the next generation is pursing all of us … “under a new banner, heralding the turn of fortune.”

Hans Morgenstern

While We’re Young runs 97 minutes and is Rated R (there’s cussing. Otherwise, teens can go and see what they have to look forward to at 40). It opened in the South Florida area on April 10 in many theaters. The indie cinema to support is O Cinema Miami Beach, which hosts the film until the end of this week. A24 Films hosted a press screening in Miami back in March for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

the-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-poster-mountainI don’t think I realized how much I loved the new film directed by Ben Stiller, the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, until I read the final draft of my review and handed it over to Hollywood.com. It was quite a ride to that final punctuation mark of the piece.

When I first sat through the film, I was first turned off by the contrived, over-the-top fantasy sequences where our titular hero (played by Stiller) escapes when he “zones out.” It felt as though the filmmakers were going for the easy, stupid laughs many of Stiller’s films often seem to lean on. However, something really brilliant was happening here. Stiller means to offer up some of the silliest moments early in the film to transcend them with a rather grand statement on escapism.

And it’s not just escaping into fantasy land Stiller aims to satirize, it’s also escaping through technology or taking short cuts in life or even following dumb fashion trends that subvert a sense of self (look to Adam Scott‘s nefarious bully of a boss for that example). After a cute fantasy sequence where a lonely Walter, stuck in a godforsaken bar in Iceland, conjures up his work crush (a sweet, low key Kristen Wiig) to sing him David Bowie’s 1969 hit “Space Oddity” (which Walter refers to as “Major Tom”), there’s a tonal shift that adapts to Walter’s new outlook on life.

The film seems to have left critics mixed, some cite that tonal shift as a problem (see the Rotten Tomatoes rating here). But it’s actually a strength of the film, which requires that shift to stay true to the growth of the character. You can read my review for a more positive take. Jump through to Hollywood.com for the full review:

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Hans Morgenstern

Here’s the trailer:

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty runs 114 minutes and is rated PG (I can’t recall anything offensive about it). It opens pretty much everywhere in the U.S. tomorrow, Dec. 25. My Hollywood.com review also appears on Movietickets.com, where you can enter your zip code to find the closest theater hosting screenings. Fox Searchlight hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

With Greenberg, director Noah Baumbach sharpens his usual focus on the greedy tics of self-absorbed protagonists by pointing his camera on nothing less than a formerly institutionalized misanthrope, probably his most extremely dysfunctional character to date. But the title character is something much more than a self-centered egoist who hates people. He re-directs the hatred he has for himself into disdain for the behaviors of not only what he perceives are the common masses but the actions of those that love him. Baumbach and his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, craft a masterful script to form Greenberg, and Ben Stiller does an amazing, patient job at bringing this character to life.

Greenberg is a carpenter with an attitude fueled by a passion for letters of complaint to companies like Starbucks and American Airlines and wistful memories from the 80s of playing in a new wave/post-punk trio that nearly signed a major label deal. But the only real talent he has is finding something to complain about in every situation he stumbles into, especially with those he thinks he knows. His letters are nothing compared to the anger he throws on those closest to him.

After supposedly being released from a mental hospital, Greenberg, a New York transplant, finds himself house-sitting for his brother in Los Angeles. While Greenberg’s brother heads off to enjoy Vietnam with his wife and kids, Greenberg is left to tend to the family dog, who has grown weak with an autoimmune disorder (Greenberg at one point worries about catching the dog’s illness, but it’s as if the dog actually caught it from him). In the meantime, he takes advantage of his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring singer in her mid 20s with a weak self-esteem. Despite his crude manner of canceling a date with her at a bar to instead split her only bottle of beer at her place, she accepts his advances for a brief sexual encounter that ends as abruptly as it had begun, doing nothing for either one of them.

As their relationship turns on but mostly off, the care of the dog seems to provide the only glue that can hold them together. Greenberg also spends much of his time catching up with his former band mate and longtime friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a soft-spoken man whose 10-year marriage with the mother of his only son has begun to unravel. Greenberg is more happy about the marriage’s dissolution than he is about signs Ivan can work it out. During a dinner out with Ivan and Florence, Greenberg suddenly shuts down an attempt by Ivan to celebrate Greenberg’s 40th birthday by having the waiters bring over a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” with a tantrum. These two characters’ generous attempts to show Greenberg some affection coupled with their own sorry states provide the perfect foils for Greenberg, whose weak anger could find no more comfortable place (there are some brief moments when Greenberg tries to confront strangers to sad but funny ineffectiveness).

Stiller’s performance is nothing short of brave because you can bet lots of people will come to this movie expecting the buffoonery that helped get him the popularity he currently enjoys. But this movie is no Dodge Ball or Tropic Thunder. The last time Stiller did something this low-key was in Reality Bites, though the Greenberg character is probably as ugly as the one in Permanent Midnight, a hardcore tragic drama of a man’s rise and fall in the world of writing a sitcom for TV, based on the true story of the writer behind “ALF.” That film remains one of his least popular.

In Greenberg, Stiller captures his character’s complex as much with his pauses and silences as with his harsh opinions. At Greenberg’s low-key 40th birthday celebration, when Ivan says, “Youth is wasted on the young,” Greenberg responds by saying, “I’d go further,” while staring down at his menu. “I’d say life is wasted on … people.”

I was hoping this to be a laugh-a-minute, though self-deprecating film like the Squid and the Whale, but Baumbach has taken the self-deprecation to a whole new level, along the lines of Margot at the Wedding. Greenberg is a dark glimpse into a man who only seems misanthropic but is actually more in love with his sad, negative self than anyone else around him. Greenberg is a walking pile of hang-ups that he constantly projects on others. What he hates about people is what he hates about himself. Throughout the movie, Greenberg meets people who have moved on and grown up, while Greenberg seems to delight in his therapist’s analysis of his issues. Toward the end of the movie, he attempts to bond with Florence telling her, “My shrinks says, I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because it felt like I didn’t ever really live it in the first place.” Again, his attempts to bond with others turns to himself.

The movie culminates with a drug-fueled party, where Greenberg finally gets a look in the mirror per se, as scores of young people surround him, and it’s literally an unrecognizable, lifeless creature floating in his brother’s pool with a single eye staring back at him. From here on, he can either choose to run further from himself and his life or dive in and start to finally live. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus wrote, “This world has a higher meaning that transcends its worries, or nothing is true but those worries. One must live with time or die with it, or else elude the greater life.” Baumbach offers no clear answers as to whether this lump of wounded humanity has learned to take personal responsibility for maintaining a relationship. The audience can only hope that Greenberg’s choice at the end of the movie to not run away from his developing sense of self is but the start of something remotely caring of others.

In the end, Greenberg proves itself as one of those rare character studies that keeps you hooked with interest thanks to a strongly drawn out and naturally played unstable protagonist (reminiscent of Adam Sandler’s turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s under-appreciated Punch Drunk Love). Stiller’s subtle acting is a refreshing change from his usual shrill, over-the-top clowns. Credit is also due to the supporting work by Gerwig and Ifans, who play people with more subtle hang-ups, yet know how to live in their skin with just enough comfort. Baumbach has turned one of the darker corners of his film career, but it shines an amazing spotlight on human behavior.

Greenberg is rated ‘R’ and opens in wide release on Friday, March 26.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)