Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young,” which uses the relationship between a middle-aged documentarian and a millennial hipster to explore generational shifts and questions of nonfiction ethics, doesn’t immediately strike you as autobiographical. Unlike 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale,” where Jesse Eisenberg’s character was, just like Baumbach, the New York-raised son of literary parents, “While We’re Young‘s” Josh Srebnick (Stiller) is a disconnected washout, his closest association with success being the esteemed documentary career of his father-in-law, played by Charles Grodin. But, as befits a film which eventually boils down the question of whether it’s acceptable to appropriate other people’s lives for your own work, “While We’re Young” borrows heavily from life, especially when it comes to the character of an eager young filmmaker played by Adam Driver.
As “While We’re Young” circulated through the Toronto Film Festival, the idea that Driver’s Jamie was, to say the least, heavily reminiscent of mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg grew from a low hum to a dull roar. Like Swanberg, Jamie is an industrious if not always inspired comer who always seems to have his hand in half a dozen projects at once. He’s married, in his 20s, to a young woman who makes artisanal ice cream — Swanberg’s wife, Kris, ran her own ice cream business until 2011 — and plays in a band with a friend called Tipper: In “While We’re Young,” the band is called Cookie o’Puss, after the Carvel ice cream cake; in real life, Swanberg and Tipper Newton played in the Ice Cream Floats. There are ample differences as well — for one thing, Jamie’s interested in nonfiction, not shambling relationship dramas that frequently involve getting himself and his female co-stars naked — but given that Baumbach has been dating frequent Swanberg collaborator Greta Gerwig for the last three years, it’s pretty clear he’s been taking notes.
Such fictional correspondences are everywhere you look in “While We’re Young”: Grodin’s vérité icon bears a passing resemblance to direct-cinema pioneer D.A. Pennebaker; Jamie’s use of Facebook as the point of origin for a personal documentary evokes “Catfish” (and the struggle for credit between collaborators might resemble Baumbach’s work on an unfinished nonfiction project with Jake Paltrow). The movie also features a handful of scenes set during and shot at the New York Film Festival, from whose lineup “While We’re Young” is somewhat conspicuously absent this year. (The film eventually played NYFF as a secret screening.)
Less easy to suss out is the extent to which Josh’s relationship with his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) parallels Baumbach’s eight-year marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh. In “While We’re Young,” Josh and Cornelia struggle with their individual and marital identities as their 40-something friends are increasingly consumed by the rituals of parenthood. (Given that Cornelia has endured several miscarriages, their friends’ insistence that “You guys would make great parents!” seems almost psychotically cruel, but the movie doesn’t dwell on that aspect.) Their waxing discomfort with their old friends’ changing lives leads them to start spending time with Jamie and his wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), whose hipster affectations — “Come to the bush of wick for ice creeeeeaaammm” — start to rub off. In short order, Josh starts wearing a snappy fedora and hornrims, and they both take part in an ayahuasca ceremony where they vomit up their troubles to the strains of Vangelis soundtracks. In life, Baumbach and Leigh were married for five years, had a child in March of 2010, and separated in November; he started seeing Gerwig the following year.
I take it as axiomatic that art is more personal than anyone not intimately acquainted with its creators would ever imagine, but often not in the ways we might expect. It’s possible the most heartfelt parts of “While We’re Young” are those least connected to Baumbach’s life, or at least the parts of it accessible through interviews and internet research. But it does feel like the movie is wrestling with the idea of what a “personal” film really means, working out in often incisive, sometimes fumbling ways whether an artist’s self can ever be put wholly into their art, or definitely kept out of it.
For its first two thirds, “While We’re Young” is a sharp comic dissection of both Gen X and millennial foibles: the way millennial enthusiasm can bleed into unbounded entitlement; how a generation raised in the analog age can mistake the technological limitations of their youth for authenticity. And then the movie takes an abrupt, ungainly swerve, leading to a psychodramatic confrontation between Josh and Jamie that’s utterly, if not unproductively, out of sync with the tone of everything that’s come before. (Since the movie was only acquired for distribution three days ago, I’m being purposefully vague. We’ll talk more later.) It boils down, as this particular generational conflict often does, to the distinction between sharing and stealing, although in this case what’s being taken is not a digital file but the substance of someone else’s life. Must biography, auto- or otherwise, always be scrupulously factual, or can it be remixed and recombined, made into something new — and if you do the latter, do you have to show your work? “While We’re Young” itself lands at shifting points between the two extremes, leaving us to ponder the question of what’s real and what’s not, or else — and maybe this is the point — to stop asking and just watch.
Update, March 2015: For what it’s worth, Baumbach has denied that the characters in “While We’re Young” are in any way based on real people, although he’s on record as being (or having been) a fan of Swanberg’s work, and even produced Swanberg’s “Alexander the Last.” Baumbach passed off the similarities as festival-circuit gossip in an interview with RogerEbert.com’s Matt Fagerholm, and when the Dissolve’s Tasha Robinson specifically asked him about this article, he responded, “It’s funny, someone mentioned this to me in an interview a couple of weeks ago, and I hadn’t heard it, so it was all new to me. And then somebody else asked me about that today. No. Jamie was a totally made-up person in my mind.” That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.
(Screenshot via Some Came Running)