I’d be hard-pressed to find a more apt comparison of the way different generations consume their media than the one to be found in a key moment that occurs in While We’re Young. In the scene, which takes up no more than ten seconds of a montage, we see Jamie (Adam Driver), typical young Brooklyn hipster, popping in a VHS of The Howling into a purposefully retro, old-school TV. Immediately cut to Josh (Ben Stiller), typical middle-aged Upper West Side intellectual, impersonally flipping through his Netflix queue.
The warmth of the analogue format being revitalized by the youth, versus the coldness of the digital format being accepted by the old, was a startling juxtaposition that I can’t remember being portrayed as eloquently in a film before this. The revelation that the old desperately try to keep up with the new, and that the young foolishly idealize the retro, was at first surprising for me, especially when one considers that Josh was Jamie’s age when VHS was simply the norm as opposed to the hip.
One would think that when Vassar alum Noah Baumbach ‘91 compares the differences in older generations versus younger generations, as is the film’s central theme, the modes of film viewing for each party would be the opposite. And yet, it is a revelation that totally makes sense. Personally, I can recall how my own parents get giddy at the satisfaction of pressing play on a Netflix title (‘I guess streaming is where it’s at these days’), and scoff at how I lug my 80s TV around (‘Admiral was a crappy brand then, and it’s a crappy brand now’). But then again, like Jamie, maybe I’m just a prisoner of nostalgia? If not, he would seem to be an accurate representation of our intentionally quaint generation.
In any case, throughout my joyous experience of viewing Baumbach’s latest outing, one that had me smiling from ear to ear for all of its breezy 94 minutes, I kept finding one spot-on point and juxtaposition after another. This was truly quite a feat considering how easily he could have fallen back onto one-dimensional stereotypes, but refused to. In fact, this film, which could have easily fell into parody of curmudgeon-ism (to make up a word), proves instead to be Baumbach’s most insightful statement since The Squid and the Whale. The two work beautifully as companion pieces, if only to compare how much Brooklyn has changed in the last 30 years, from the poor-man’s Manhattan of the ‘80s, to the hotbed of culture of today.
Simmering beneath the surface, only to boil over in the film’s final minutes, Baumbach seems very concerned with how future generations will be raised in today’s digital culture, as evidenced by an ingenious comic sequence of a toddler fiddling around with an iPhone as if it were a stuffed animal. Wreaking havoc as it wields the frightening ability to call anybody in the world, accidentally search any topic it can type, incidentally holding more power in the palm of its hand than a toddler of any previous generation would be capable of having – in the subtlest of ways, at least to our middle-aged protagonists, the future seems frightening. Hasn’t it always?
Most interestingly, the script serves as a truthful, if perhaps unpleasant reveal of the down-and-dirty tactics that it takes to be successful in the film world, contrasting the ethical, relative failure that is Josh, with the sleazy but victorious Jamie. At the end of the day, it would seem that Baumbach’s message is that the most manipulative person will win out unpunished, because that’s just the way the world works.
Technically, this is a film whose cinematography is purposefully unflashy yet pure in the way it showcases real life. Such a statement might seem a little insincere given the polished sheen that pervades the work, complete with its all-star cast, and especially in contrast to Baumbach’s previous down and dirty, spunky piece of independent filmmaking that was Frances Ha. And yet, he employs the same verite shooting style, staging some scenes right in the middle of a real-life New York crowd, some of which feature fairly unnoticeable, unrehearsed extras staring on at Ben Stiller (Baumbach justified said technique by referring to its gritty usage in Midnight Cowboy). Most strikingly, the last shot of the film is the title itself, spray-painted on a brick wall in graffiti, as the end credits roll. Random people cross the frame – some staring on, some walking right by it. To my eye, the totality of the film, symbolized by its title (in addition to just being a cool shot), encompasses the entirety of today’s zeitgeist represented by real life caught unawares, to reference a Vertov expression.
The televisual style also allows for the film’s many details to speak for themselves, especially in Jamie’s apartment littered with cool, retro artifacts like a “Rappin’ Rodney” LP (which Baumbach says is his own personal copy) to a Rocky III poster (which is hilariously later referenced in a jokey usage of “Eye of the Tiger”). The appropriation of these then-mediocre pieces of pop culture iconography from Josh’s youth into an ultra-hip persona for Jamie never ceases to cause one to question just how shallow the foundation for the hipster mindset really is (and, full disclosure, I wholly count myself as one of those youngsters who find such lame things awesome).
To quote Josh in his surprise at Jamie’s earnest sharing of “Eye of the Tiger,” he says, “I remember when this song was just considered bad. . .but it’s working.” When it works, it works. In this way, the film reminds us that sometimes it takes the youth of tomorrow to rediscover the power of what is dismissed today.
In essence, this is a highly entertaining film with a lot of serious ideas about today to convey. I wouldn’t be surprised if 30 years from now, despite Baumbach’s obvious and endearing callbacks to ‘70s cinema (Woody Allen in particular), this were held as one of the films that for better or for worse showed what life was like in 2015.