While We're Young Is Noah Baumbach's 'Plottiest' Movie Yet
The director of Frances Ha and Kicking and Screaming discusses his latest project, starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a Brooklyn couple in the throes of a midlife crisis.
Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is the kind of light comedy that delves into the very tricky territory of trying to analyze "how we live now," and mostly succeeds. The story follows Josh, a frustrated documentary filmmaker (Ben Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) who are navigating their early 40s and watching all of their friends have children, and their friendship with the young couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who help bring some magic back into their lives. Suddenly, the couple goes from boring get-togethers and early nights to tearing around Bushwick and taking psychotropic substances en masse with other twenty-somethings, while also jumping into filmmaking with their new friends.
Baumbach's films include the sharp post-college comedies Kicking and Screaming and Frances Ha; his explorations of getting older, such as Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale, and Margot at the Wedding, are darker and more acidic, though not without levity. None are particularly plot-centric, and Baumbach usually relies more on witty banter than wild twists and turns. But While We're Young has a couple of surprises in its third act, as the young Brooklyn hipsters turn out to be not quite as free-wheeling and generous as they initially seem. In an interview, Baumbach discussed the genesis of the film and the clichés he hoped to pay homage to and (avoid). The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Sims: Did you come into the film with the angle of the generational divide? What was the idea that sparked the movie for you?
Baumbach: Initially, I wanted to do a comedy about marriage, something in a tradition of adult comedies about marriage, starting with the screwball comedies but also connected to movies when I was growing up, like Broadcast News, or Working Girl, or Tootsie. Those were movies that had great character and were about grown-up people, but also were mainstream and broad.
Sims: They had plot twists and excitement to them.
Baumbach: Exactly. And I wanted to find my version of that.
Sims: I think this is your plottiest film. Did you plan that from the start?
Baumbach: Thank you for saying that. I’m proud of the plot in this, I finally have a plot!
Sims: It’s rare that your movies have a dramatic third act where wheels start turning and we're hurtling toward an exciting, dramatic conclusion. I didn’t think there would be a big twist in While We're Young.
Baumbach: Because I was thinking in that tradition, I felt like the movie needed to have something … and it was also compelling to me that Josh invests so strongly in this story. It was almost like there was a thriller lying dormant underneath this comedy the whole time, and for five minutes it wakes up. Part of the trope of these kinds of comedies is, the search Josh is on is really an internal one, he’s looking for answers that nobody on the outside is going to provide for him.
Sims: Josh wants a dramatic showdown to resolve whatever his internal crisis is. The pathos of the finale is that it doesn’t really provide that answer.
Baumbach: No, and to your point about my previous movies, I think in some ways what I was attempting was to present a world where there are no dramatic moments. Or maybe a better way to say it is that dramatic moments occur all the time. As much as I like movies that have therapeutic breakthroughs for people, it doesn’t happen that way. And for a movie, it becomes necessary to do that sometimes. I suppose this was my way of being able to provide that catharsis but also acknowledge that it doesn’t happen in real life.
Sims: In Frances Ha, the protagonist suddenly goes to Paris, and you don’t provide much explanation of how she got there, whereas this film has a totally different (logical) feel.
Baumbach: Right, and she’s also young enough that she can just do it. The challenge in Frances was to find the story in the episodic nature of it. And here, the challenge was to keep the stone rolling down the hill.
David Sims: Part of the appeal of the younger generation in While We’re Young is that, earlier in life, everything seems less stressful. You don’t have to overthink every decision you’re making.
Noah Baumbach: Yeah, I think that’s part of what Josh [Ben Stiller’s character] is relieved by in knowing Jamie [Adam Driver], that it all seems like it doesn’t matter as much, that he’s cared too much in all those ways.
Sims: The decision of buying a hat, which Josh does, is one of those things you can only overthink.
Baumbach: Yeah, it’s just a hat. The same with Jamie’s idea of not Googling something ("Let’s not know what something is"). He’s talking about the stress of finding the answer, and being given permission again to like what you like. To like the song “Eye of the Tiger.” To not have to Google everything.
Sims: I was interested that you used the story of two documentary filmmakers—were you trying to talk about how different generations perceive facts differently? I think, to Jamie, he thinks he’s presenting "the truth" in his films, even though the fact that he stages certain events is so horrifying to Josh.
Baumbach: Initially, I came up with the documentary idea because I think it’s an interesting occupation, and it’s visual. And it’s also something [Josh and Jamie] could team up on and we could see them go do. I wasn’t interested in the meta aspects of it, I didn’t want this to be so much about filmmaking—it can be so boring in movies to watch people film people—but I thought it was a way to have fun with it, because it’s funny the way they do it. It was a way to present these different generations, how the iconography is different in these distinct ways. Once I had this, I felt I had to enter into these arguments and let it play out, although I didn’t think it was my responsibility to solve it. I felt like my responsibility was to bring a satisfying conclusion in the movie to the marriage, to deliver on that. With things like technology and documentary, I could enter into arguments from different perspectives, and let that be an argument that people pick up.
Sims: And thus stay away from “these kids and their phones.”
Baumbach: Right. If anything, we’re like, “these adults and their phones.” That, to me, is more the problem. With younger people, their relationship to technology is so fluid. It’s sadder to see people my age who are addicted, because we didn’t grow up with it. It’s like when Charlie Watts got addicted to heroin in the 80s, it’s like, “Oh, no!”
Sims: Did you worry, making a film set in Brooklyn? It’s so easy to paint a character as a gentrifying hipster. Is that a fear when you make a film about younger people, in this place where you grew up?
Baumbach: In a way, I feel like Brooklyn is mine as much as anybody’s. On Frances, I was already in this world to some degree. But I was aware that from a design standpoint, if we were following the trends, we’d be behind them forever, and instead we kind of invented our own Brooklyn look. We did things that were interesting to us. Jamie’s wardrobe was based on an Eric Rohmer movie, La Collectioneuse; that actor, Patrick Bauchau, kind of looks like Adam Driver.
Sims: He does, even physically ... the sort of languid length that they have.
Baumbach: Yes, there’s all the lounging in that movie that’s so great. So he does this thing where he buttons his shirt and it’s long and blousy. Ann Roth, who did the costumes, I mean, she did Midnight Cowboy, our interest was to go and create our own pastiche. But at the same time, of course, we’re in the present, in the real world.
Sims: Right, you don’t want them to be wearing moon boots.
Baumbach: Yeah! And I felt a certain responsibility to a certain kind of aspect of documentary about New York, since that was in the movie, that we were showing it how it kind of is, even though we’re also, like Jamie, fabricating it.
Sims: While We're Young could so easily feel cranky, and it doesn’t. Did you have that in mind throughout, that you didn’t want it to seem like an Andy Rooney rant about the kids and their phones?
Baumbach: I don’t feel that way, so I’m glad you’re saying that. It doesn’t mean I can’t have cranky moments, but I also felt like once we introduce Ben and Naomi Watts’ characters—in this first scene where they talk about the freedoms they have without children, that they’re of course not taking any advantage of—I felt like we’re lovingly poking holes in their world. So I didn’t feel like we were presenting two perfect individuals who are corrupted by youth. I never felt that way at all. The pleasures of those comedies of marriage, what was funny to me about the marriage in this movie, is that the things you accept and rationalize in your relationship, if you take a step back—
Sims: With a little bit of perspective, you might be horrified.