Monday, June 15, 2015


The old idiom is "keeping up with the Joneses," used to describe the psychology of constantly comparing yourself to your neighbours. Living in a global neighbourhood now, we're exposed to an inexhaustible population of social, cultural, and economic Joneses. We're inundated with the thoughts and lifestyles of others, gobbling pictures of friends and strangers zip lining through the jungle on their honeymoon, or posing with their newborn in pork pie hats, or showing off how they've turned reclaimed dresser drawers into faux-distressed planters. Everything others do seems so perfectly and effortlessly executed and they seem so happy. The question gets begged: what are we doing wrong that we don't have kids, or haven't turned skids into wall art, or don't do yoga on mountain tops while the sun sets?

It's not just material or cultural wealth that we compare and contrast and sweat, but wealth of character. The essential act of comparing yourself to your peers was captured finely by Sheila Heti in 2010's genre-bending How Should a Person Be? "How should a person be?" the "novel of life" opens,
For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too. I noticed the way people dressed, the way they treated their lovers–in everyone, there was something to envy. You can admire anyone for being themselves.
Heti got her hands on a kind of zeitgeist, on a generational interest in and/or worry about how other people are getting along, where peers are turned into a type of celebrity through our interest in them. But, more than that, she uses this interest as a means of friendship and love and personal recalibration. In this way, Noah Baumbach's While We're Young flirts with the cynical side of cultural and personal "keeping up", but it also sides with Heti's study of how we can be enlivened by our admiration of others. 

Cornelia and Josh (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are a forty-something couple, respectfully a producer and a documentary filmmaker who's newest project has been eight years in production. Past attempts to have children unsuccessful, they're getting left behind by their friends who are successfully taking those steps forward. It's in this adult dead zone that they meet the twenty-something couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who take them under their wing, exposing them to antique hats and hip-hop dance class.

"It's like their apartment is full of everything we threw out," Cornelia observes after their first visit, "but it looks so good the way they have it." As millennials, Jamie and Darby have reclaimed everything Cornelia and Josh have moved beyond. They've got a tube television and a wall of vinyl and only watch movies on VHS and pass the time playing boardgames, almost version of the older couple in their own youth. The younger pair walk the hipster line – as many do in real life – of being caricatures, but their enthusiasm and their seeming devotion to a more "authentic" way of life jostles Cornelia and Josh out of their middle-aged yuppie torpor.

While We're Young wrings a lot of Portlandia-esque humor out of the affectations of hipster Millenialls and just as much out of the inelegance of the adult aping of that style, making this Baumbach's funniest and broadest film to date. But there are also more serious questions of authenticity – both artistic and personal – running beneath the yuks. The film doesn't just take shots at the pomp of the youngsters, but calls foul on the purported ease with which Cornelia and Josh's friends are tackling adulthood and parenthood. In its own way, While We're Young asks, "How should a person be?"

Heti's non-fiction novel amounts to one of the best love stories in the past few years, digesting that concern with the activities of others into a loving appreciation of friends. While We're Young struggles a little in its third act with dramatic reveals, but where it really succeeds is as a How Should a Person Be?-type love story. Yes, there's a lot of laughs at the Generation Xers trying to keep the Millennial Joneses, but there's a sturdy allowance for authentic affection in all that posed affectation.

- Andrew

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