We’re all getting older, and writer, producer and director Noah Baumbach is presumably feeling it. His latest film is a finely observed comedy, which captures the anxiety and fear of a younger generation coming up to middle age to both poignant and hilarious effect.
The film opens with childless, forty-something couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) making a vain attempt to appear suitably enchanted by the new baby of some close friends. Having been unable to have children themselves, they have accepted their status, and live what they claim is a spontaneous childfree life. However, we soon discover that this is not entirely accurate; Josh has been toiling to complete the same documentary for ten years, putting life on hold for the duration. The six-and-a-half-hour-long work-in-progress has clearly become a burden, and with no end in sight their lives are stagnant and frustrating.
When cool young couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) attend a lecture given by Josh, he and Cornelia are instantly taken with the energetic twenty-somethings. Jamie is an aspiring filmmaker himself, and appears to be a big fan of Josh’s work – rare praise, which the older man revels in. Jamie and Darby’s fresh and quirky approach to life invigorates the stagnancy of the older couple’s lives, and they quickly form a friendship and begin to relive their youth. Comparisons with their middle-aged friends with kids come thick and fast, and we can see precisely where the appeal of youth lies.
The film is crammed with humorous reflections on the mundanity of modern life that we are all too painfully familiar with. While Josh and Cornelia’s lifestyle reminds us how gadgets and technology can dominate our lives – we see them constantly using their phones to fact-check while out socialising, or glued to their screens at home – the younger couple seem to be living a blissful post-digital life. Although they use technology, Jamie rarely being seen without his Go-Pro red light switched on, they seem to have struck the balance just right, and are living a thrilling, modern life without being controlled by technology. There are interesting moments when Jamie tells Josh not to find out what “baklava” tastes of via his phone – “Let’s just think,” he says, and when they can’t remember, “Let’s just…not know!” This anti-technology philosophy is prevalent in other aspects of their life – they hang out with their friends, playing board games, listening to vinyl and watching VHS tapes, prompting the older couple to question why they have abandoned these throwbacks in the first place.
Predictably, the appeal of Jamie and Darby and their cool lifestyle fades, as slowly we see it’s all a bit of a sham. The flip-side of being spontaneous, full of ideas and excited by everything is revealed, as we realise that Jamie’s film is more about his ego than the truth. The younger couple separate, and it is clear that Jamie does what it takes to get what he wants, and will use anyone that can help him on his way. The image of Jamie that Josh was so enthralled by comes crashing down, as he realises he has been a pawn on his path to glory.
The film ends with Cornelia and Josh appreciating each other all the more for having had a brief flirtation with youthfulness. They decide it’s a child missing from their lives, and not hip-hop classes or a shamanic ayahuasca retreat, and in the final scene we see them flying off to adopt a child. In middle age we all hanker after what we had, to some extent, and watch the younger generation with a hint of envy and awe. This film reminds us why we perhaps shouldn’t.