Free-solo rock climbing: 500 feet off the deck, hanging off fingertips—no rope. The traditional climbing rules are to figure out the challenges as you go, from the ground up. One slip of focus and a free-solo climber dies.
Granted, that’s the extreme end of it. But the original, roped mountaineering ethics championed adventure, courage, and controlling your mind.
In the 1980s, Generation-X “hang-doggers” dropped down on climbing ropes from cliff tops to pre-inspect routes and drill bolts, putting safety first. This turned the sport into safe, gymnastic fun. The ability to test and grow one’s inner character through danger went missing.
The fairly fun “While We’re Young” is the documentary filmmaker version of the above adventure-climbing versus safe-bolting: the truthful documentary versus the faux, faked documentary.
Today’s Generation Y yearns for and pays tribute to some kind of romanticized, analog echt-ness while being profoundly, scarily (often hypocritically) in virtuoso command of all things digital. A turntable does give a truer sound than CD and mp3. But if you fake your footage, aren’t you a liar?
“While We’re Young” opens with dialogue from Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” about a middle-aged architect who, while showing off to a young woman, falls off his own scaffolding and dies.
It’s an apropos selection because 40-something documentarian Josh (Ben Stiller) meets 20-something documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver from HBO’s “Girls”), tries to show off (he’s always wanted a protégé), and is yanked off the scaffolding of his orthodox, dated documentary ethics by Jamie’s less-than-scrupulous “whatever” hipster zeitgeist.
Josh and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are the last sans-kids couple of their peer group. Their best friends just had a kid and are applying peer pressure. Josh and Cornelia are not having it.
Jamie and wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), Generation-Y Bushwick-eratti, attend one of Josh’s lectures and proceed to butter him up with a laid-back dinner invite that belies Gen-Y’s uncanny, precocious grasp of showbiz schmooze. They’re so smooth that Josh never sees it coming—just like he never notices, as they spend more time together, Jamie’s ever-present, surreptitious phone-filming.
Josh, feeling a tingling of returning youth while hanging out with his new, Bushwick-ian, Ferris Beuller-like buddy, clichédly appropriates the ubiquitous hipster hat and denies his arthritis.
The irony is thick, as Gen-Xers Josh and Cornelia try to stay current and trendy with Gen-Y’s iEverything gizmos, while Gen-Y Jamie and Darby’s retro loft manifests their joyful romanticizing of everything Josh and Cornelia joyfully trashed, in their attempt to purge themselves of all vestiges of Baby-Boomer-generation influence.
The hipster kiddies have a caged chicken, giant vinyl collection, VHS, and the ultimate coveted totem of Generation-X,Y,Z wordsmith-artists everywhere: a vintage electric typewriter circa the late 1960s.
And Darby makes … ice cream. No, seriously—it’s what she does. If she’d lived three generations earlier, she’d say, “Ice cream’s groovy, ya dig?” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
How can Josh and Cornelia not want to be like them? Their love life spices right up, much like Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway’s characters did, by way of Johnny Depp’s infectious über-romantic character in the hilarious “Don Juan DeMarco.” It’s all very ravishing.
Josh, who’s been toiling in obscurity on his own, decade-long documentary project, much like Woody Allen’s character in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” is so smitten with the concept of having a protégé, he doesn’t notice that he’s the mark in Jamie’s long-con grift of trying to establish contact with Josh’s famous father-in-law.
Said father-in-law, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), is himself an iconic documentary filmmaker. Guess where young Jamie ends up? Sitting beside Leslie at Leslie’s New York Film Festival black-tie tribute.
This tribute Josh eventually crashes (on rollerblades) to sweatily confront Jamie’s slick con job on him. As well as take issue with Jamie’s even slicker, faked-footage documentary that he’s finagled Leslie into blessing.
“Young” is full of fun scenes, a personal favorite being when Josh’s friend (former Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) admits about child-rearing: “Sometimes, you know, the preparation went on for so long, you feel like—we did this already! We don’t need the actual baby.”
The acting’s fine all around. Ben Stiller’s the Gen-X Woody Allen, Naomi Watts is funny, and Adam Driver’s considerable charisma demonstrates why he’s not flash-in-the-pan talent.
Back to the ethics: Jamie’s faked footage is a lot more fun to watch; it tells the story more engagingly. So why do we need the ethics of truthful, pedantically gathered, bona fide footage? On principle? Does anyone care anymore?
Maybe the answer to the validity of faked footage can be found in the work of that, ahem, great philosopher and composer—Bootsy Collins. In his song “The Pinocchio Theory,” he states, profoundly: “Don’t fake the funk, or your nose’ll grow.”
The old guard screams “lies!” The young turks reply “whatever!” Which generation are you, and how do you like your truth served up?
‘While We’re Young’
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Release date: March 27
3.5 stars out of 5