Noah Baumbach’s latest film While We’re Young fires comic warning shots at both the young and the old. For the old, represented by failing documentary film-maker Josh and wife Cornelia, it suggests that if you’re about to have a mid-life crisis it’s best not to have it in the company of hipsters ( Beware Hipsters!) For the young, represented by would-be documentary film-maker Jamie and wife Darby, it presents the emptiness, dangers and deficiencies of their lifestyle ( Beware, Hipsters!).
At first the film seems to be exploring the familiar territory of classic mid-life crisis. The childless Josh and Cornelia, aware that time is passing them by, turn away from their child-producing friends and spend time in the company of the young couple. Josh wears a hipster hat and starts to ride a bicycle, Cornelia goes to hip-hop dance class, and they both attempt to reach a higher plane of consciousness through a shaman-guided hallucinogenic session of vomiting.
This is all amusing enough (the vomit scene particularly so), but there is something much more serious being played out in this skilful work. A subtle pattern of mirroring enables Baumbach to explore the differences between the two generations – each is defined through what they see of, and for, themselves in the other. For the ageing Josh he thinks he sees in hipster Jamie (nice one, Noah, giving them the same initial…) a protégé and a chance to reinvigorate himself. For hipster Jamie he thinks he sees in Josh not so much the man he wants to be but, it turns out, a ticket to his own success and self-advancement.
Generational attitudes and behaviours are brought into comic collision throughout. Josh and Cornelia are slaves to social media while Jamie eschews Facebook , preferring ‘real life’ communication. For Jamie and Darby it’s vinyl rather than CD, VHS rather than DVD’s, typewriters rather than iPads. The twentysomethings have embraced the old in the same way that the fortysomethings have been seduced by the new.
It may be because I am in a position to regard the forty-four-year old Josh as ‘young’ that my sympathies lie so emphatically with the older couple, but I can’t help thinking that Baumbach’s method encourages this. While we may laugh at Josh and Cornelia’s pathetic attempts to embrace and ape the lifestyle of their new friends, when we discover, with Josh, the reality of Jamie’s film-making we become aware of the awfulness and shallowness of the young and the huge gulf in values separating the generations.
Hipster Jamie is appalling in his total fakery. His hipster life is informed by arrogant assumptions of entitlement (he assumes that Josh will pick up every tab and gives barely a grunt of recognition or thanks) and appropriation (everything is his for the taking). It is also characterised by acts of carefully cultivated fabrication. This becomes most apparent when his attitude to film-making ( and for film-making here read all art, all life) is revealed. Whereas Josh has been hampered in his career by an excessive concern for truth and a commitment to the higher values and functions of his documentary-making, Jamie has been driven by a Machiavellian pragmatism and calculated acts of appropriation which are initially hidden beneath his laid-back hipster cool.
While we’re Young is a great film – funny, wise and sad. “I’m an old man!” says Josh, showing a Lear-like understanding of what he has become and what, regardless of any mid-life attempt to arrest the process, lies in wait for us all. The film’s most telling line is also Josh’s, when he observes of Jamie that “ he’s not evil, he’s young”. That’s what the film shows – youth as an illness from which we all recover but to which we are still susceptible for the rest of our lives. It’s significant that babies, symbols of life going on and of generational renewal and challenge, should feature so much and that the very final image should be of a baby – a baby that looks either cute or frightening, depending on your point of view.
Beware Hipsters! Or Beware, Hipsters! While We’re Young delivers a lot of laughs but it also delivers warnings to both young and old.