Certificate of Authenticity
By Michael Koresky

While We’re Young
Dir. Noah Baumbach, U.S., A24

[Warning: This review contains multiple spoilers.]

Someone could write an entire book about Adam Driver’s mannered acting style, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already begun writing it himself. From his first appearances in his breakthrough role on Girls, Driver has seemed to be using acting to implicitly ask questions about the profession of acting itself, littering his phrasings and pronunciations with unexpected, strangely displaced intonations that serve to alienate the actor from the character and the character from the text. From his mouth, final words of sentences become free-floating particles; “okay” becomes “oh-kaaay-ee” and a simple “hello” turns into a sing-songy “hull-O-oh?”; phrases fly out in quick, sharp bursts and then in slow, deliberate drawls. Whether one finds him entertaining or irritating or both, Driver always seems to want the viewer to know he’s not merely acting, but rather that he’s performing an idea of acting. And whether this functions as a layer of self-protective irony, or he is implicitly pulling back some sort of perceived curtain that exists between the viewer and the fictional world, Driver often appears to be not acting, but playacting. It’s an approach with which he seems to be calling into question the very possibility of his own authenticity.

One might be tempted to notice something specifically contemporary in this, that the now 31-year-old Juilliard graduate’s distancing tactics onscreen have been somehow indicative of a rabidly self-absorbed millennial generation. In other words, Driver is constantly acting not to connect with other performers in the frame, but to further some private, internal joke: every shot a “selfie.” Yet Driver is hardly the first and will surely not be the last successful screen actor to allow his ungainly mannerisms to overwhelm everything around him (Jeff Goldblum comes to mind). Whether one reads Driver’s technique as intentionally manipulative or unconsciously truth-telling, he’s been perfectly cast by Noah Baumbach in While We’re Young, which is a film that both investigates presumptions about the generational divide and takes the search for authenticity as its central theme.

This search is the film’s stealth real narrative; in outline, and in its marketing, it seems to be a relatable contemporary situation comedy about a satisfactorily childless New York couple, Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), in denial about their approaching middle-age who become fast, unexpected friends with two preternaturally hip twentysomethings, Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). In comparison to their increasingly baby-centric social circle, exemplified most acutely by their new-parent closest friends, played by Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz, Jamie and Darby are particularly seductive. Initially, and during the best passages, the film maintains a distance from them: depending on what angle they are viewed from, the strikingly self-assured Jamie and Darby are complete hipster nightmares or the image of genuine fresh-faced youth itself.

Either way, the friendship between Josh and Jamie has a shaky foundation, predicated as it is on flattery. Josh is seasoned in his professional stuntedness, having worked on the same documentary about an aging (now rapidly aging) philosopher for ten years; Jamie is a wannabe filmmaker sitting in on a class Josh is teaching. After telling Josh that his little-seen nonfiction films were an inspiration, Jamie invites Josh and his wife out to dinner with him and Darby, getting a quick acceptance from the sufficiently puffed-up older man. During the meal, Jamie and Darby seem to hang on Josh’s every word—especially impressed that Cornelia’s father is legendary Maysles-esque documentarian Leslie Breitbart—even while they radiate a self-containment that stops them from seeming like precious sycophants. Soon, Josh and Cornelia are forgoing plans with their breeder peers and kicking back in Bushwick at the youngsters’ spacious loft. Aside from their apparent guilelessness, Jamie and Darby’s most appealing trait for Josh and Cornelia may be their love of all things artisanal and analog, which the older couple reads as a progressive reaction against a techno-reliant culture rather than, more probable, a willful fetish. While Josh and Cornelia’s apartment still boasts a stack or two of CD jewel cases, Jamie has endless shelves of record albums. When the four of them are trying to remember a piece of pop culture trivia, Josh whips out his trusty iPhone, but Jamie and Darby silence him, trying instead to remember without the aid of gadgetry. Failing to do so, they accept the mystery.

It’s not long before Jamie and Josh are going porkpie hat shopping, and Cornelia is accompanying Darby to hip-hop dance class. (There isn’t all that much more for the women to do, unfortunately—it’s a testament to Watts’s charisma and talent that she registers so strongly onscreen despite the film having little interest in her character other than as Josh’s appendage: there’s a very strange, extended close-up of Cornelia late in the film as she makes faces while adjusting her father’s tie that only serves to underline her character’s lack of a defined inner life.) Later, in a satirical sequence that seems like it could have been in Paul Mazursky’s 1969 bit of hipster ribbing, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the game older couple accompanies the whippersnappers to a ceremony in which some Brooklynites drink a brew of hallucinogenic ayahuasca and, under the watch of a sham shaman, “vomit up their demons” into buckets. While We’re Young traffics in a specific image of privileged urban whiteness, the kind in which materialism is seen as its opposite and liberalism is merely the fiction of all-inclusiveness. There’s undoubtedly an honesty to the film’s depiction of this blinkered milieu, but what makes all this a little tricky to parse is Baumbach’s increasingly pointed and serious-minded interrogation into realness—in both art and the self.

As it turns out, Jamie’s dubiousness—his naggingly artificial-seeming wide-eyed cultural curiosity; his hideously self-assured go-it-alone nature—extends to his professional pursuits as well. Claiming to be inspired by Josh, Jamie embarks on an apparently spontaneous, faux-investigative documentary project in the Catfish mold, which takes a sharp turn into being a portrait of a war veteran and childhood friend (Brady Corbet). The film would appear to spring from good intentions, but increasingly smacks of self-absorption; of course, everyone around Jamie fawns over the movie and it gets easily funded, which is vexing for Josh, who’s eternally waiting for money to come in for his long-term project. An ever more suspicious Josh begins to distrust his friend’s documentary ethics, and the final movement of While We’re Young finds the elder filmmaker trying to expose the younger as a malevolent being with no sense of integrity—a representation of everything wrong with the kids today.

That Josh’s race for truth and justice happens at the same time that his imperious father-in-law (played by Charles Grodin) is getting a lifetime achievement award leads to a lot of awkward cross-cutting and some of the clunkiest filmmaking of Baumbach’s career. In a Lincoln Center theater lobby, Josh chastises Jamie for mischaracterizing the nature of his film, while just beyond the doors Grodin’s Breitbart is accepting his prize with humble gratitude, a reel of his classic—and it’s implied, authentic—vérité portraits of life projected on a screen. The debate continues inside the gala room, with Josh’s idealistic, race-against-time rant meeting with little more than a collective shrug, even from doc-god Breitbart himself. The rules of the game have changed.

There’s a provocative ambiguity to While We’re Young. For some it will come across as a generational jeremiad—the caustic flipside to Baumbach’s Frances Ha, in which a twentysomething protagonist radiated such optimism that one couldn’t help but feel hope for the future. Baumbach is too savvy and self-aware to not deconstruct his protagonist’s simultaneous repulsion and attraction to youth. In this way, it becomes rather difficult to discern just what is authentic both in the world of the film—whether it’s Jamie’s solipsistic approach to art or Josh’s crippling utopianism—and in terms of the film’s discourse. In the coda, Josh and Cornelia are about to board a plane to Port-au-Prince, as they gaze admiringly at a photograph of an adorable baby they presumably are traveling to Haiti to adopt. (And this coming just minutes after we see a fleeting glimpse of a black child in a tub from Breitbart’s black-and-white highlight reel, actually taken from early Maysles footage—black children exist here solely as the photographic property of white, middle-class do-gooders.) In terms of socioeconomic and white liberal milieu, the message is clear: they are finally acting their age. But, if ultimately, as the film seems to suggest, Josh and Cornelia are just as blinkered as their young counterparts, then how are we to take their final actions—as movingly altruistic or as a cynical image of giving in to the “correct” bourgeois lifestyle? It’s all as befuddling as Adam Driver’s acting choices. What is the real thing?