In Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, the old-school white vérité documentarian, played by Charles Grodin, tells Josh, his son-in-law protégé, played by Ben Stiller:
Things change. Different things matter now.
This is the film’s central moment because it is the moment Josh realizes two things:
- The person whose youth and energy he has been coveting is an opportunistic fake.
That even the older generation of artists who represent principles of artistic intergrity no longer believe in those values, instead endorsing a new generation of consumer sociopaths and entitled white male narcissists to prosper at whatever cost.
The big mistake in Baumbach’s ending, however, is to have Josh revoke this 3rd act realization by softening his assessment of Adam Driver’s, Jamie. Josh naively concludes that Jamie is “just young.” It’s both a major misdiagnosis and a telling retraction of a highly manipulative and culturally savvy person, who is anything but naive or clueless. Jamie knows exactly what he is doing at all times in a way that Josh did not when he was Jamie’s age, and still doesn’t at his age, mid-40s. This final interpretation also fundamentally betrays the film’s main idea: that when the world was young, when this couple was young, when Grodin’s documentarian was young, real values and artistic principles existed. If this is the case, Jamie’s personal chronology has nothing to do with his personality or his behavior.
It’s the opposite. When it comes to ambition, Jamie is not “young” nor has he ever been “young.” That is, young as in uncorrupted. If the film’s main premise is that getting older results in a loss of creative and political rigor, Jamie’s behavior is a direct extension of a highly cynical age that interfaces with and results in shameless careesism at any cost. And Jamie knows this about himself, and is unapologetic about it, even when he’s being confronted. So at the very least Josh should know this about Jamie. But apparently Josh (and we the audience) can’t know or is supposed to forget that he knows what he knows about Jamie because it’s the kind of false consciousness that he and his wife Cornelia (Noami Watts) need to assume in order to give up the real world (it’s unclear what immaturity and maturity actually entail in the film as there are only various forms of crippled adulthood and egocentrism) and to enter into a complacent, apolitical, neoliberal, conformist adulthood that offers simple panaceas like white couples adopting black babies. So the world consists of two kinds of people now: spoiled white borgeois neo-tradionalists and spoiled white entitled sociopaths who call all the cultural shots and refer to themselves as artists even though are only ever interested in money and fame. Jamie reminded me a lot of a well known narcissist who scavenges the NYC poetry scene for talented women and with whom I had a similar (but much worse) experience. Like every gaslighting story (this one employs the classic 80s-movie structure of recognizing that one’s coveted object/nemesis is just an illusion), While We’re Young concerns the problem of knowledge and what to do about it once you have it.
Crossposted with Love Dog.