Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion) Talks Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young

One great iconic American independent writer-director discusses the latest work by another.

Jean-Luc Godard once described critics as “soldiers who fire on their own troops.” I don’t own a gun but I do feel a little uneasy here. Noah Baumbach is a filmmaker I admire and respect. And I’m sure, like me, he’d much prefer to make films than to write about them. So let’s just say this; these words are my thoughts and nothing more. Regarding them, I would completely understand someone saying, “Yeah, well, who gives a shit?”

I like Baumbach’s films, especially Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale. His sensibility is a little like Woody Allen’s in his Husbands and Wives period, combined with a stringent dose of satire that echoes Billy Wilder. He’s interested in human behavior and the strange, wonderfully disturbing muck of reality that we all wallow in just below the surface.

While Were Young centers on a childless couple, played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. Through them, Baumbach offers some perceptive insights into that awful transition from Still Young to Middle Age. I give him great credit for even thinking this would be interesting material. The obsession with Youth is now so ferocious that 30 is the new 60. Everyone dreads getting old but nothing is worse than feeling old-fashioned. That’s why the early scenes with Stiller and Watts getting to know a younger, hipper couple, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, have such an uneasy, hilarious edge. Driver and Seyfried are very good here, bringing enough luscious appeal to their neo-Bohemianism to almost make you not want to slap them.

Naomi Watts is a revelation. The film is worth seeing simply for the scenes of her hilarious attempts to fit in at a hip-hop dance class. It’s a delight just watching her move. Watts is an actor who brings a pure flow of reality to everything she does. There is an openness to her work that makes you almost fall into her. You believe every word and gesture, from the silly to the tragic.

That’s why it’s a little difficult to watch her here with Ben Stiller. I like Stiller a lot and I think he’s very talented but he has a natural default as an actor which at times makes him impenetrable. He brings a finely crafted level of inscrutability to his characters. It’s like a constant, very skillful intellectual mindfuck that leaves you feeling you never know where he stands.

He did this throughout Greenberg, another film he made with Baumbach. Some people like this about him. I find it fascinating but I’m not sure it was the most useful thing for him to bring to While Were Young. It shuts him off and forces Watts to work overtime to make their relationship believable. To her great credit, she almost does.

Baumbach’s script, however, focuses on Stiller as the main character in his film. We follow his struggles as a documentary filmmaker. It is Stiller who ultimately sees Driver’s opportunism and it is his deep moral objection that makes him expose it. But the character that’s been created on screen is such a petulant, crabby loser that it is difficult to connect with him. His cynicism obscures him. We never see through to his soul. A glimpse of it might have explained why Watts loves him and provided some credibility for her endless devotion to him.

The film very deftly details the stale mechanics of their relationship. Both Stiller and Watts are excellent at tossing off endearing phrases and gestures that have lost all meaning. Yet Watts is given the sole responsibility of keeping the spark alive. With the exception of a brief sex-montage, Stiller never touches or caresses her throughout the entire film. At one point, Watts plants a deep, juicy kiss on Stiller that seems to have surprised him as much as it did me.

The film addresses her inability to have a child. In some ways, she’s already got one. This limits Watts to being Stiller’s caretaker, to being supportive. She’s given the profession of “Producer” but we never see her produce anything. In fact, it is unclear what she does all day. Apparently neither of them need to bother with jobs, which made me wonder what they’re living on. At one point, Stiller — with the air of having made an extreme sacrifice — pays his editor with money he made by selling his CD collection. Given today’s depressed market for new CDs, it’s hard to see how used discs could have netted him more than a hundred bucks.

Later Stiller and Watts have a fight during which, out of nowhere, he says, “Fuck you.” Watts, astonished, asks him if he really means it. He says, “Yes. This ‘fuck you’ is coming right from the deepest part of my core.” This is one of the most puzzling moments in the film. Stiller delivers the line with the cold, self-righteous fury of a man with a scalpel. Don’t get me wrong, it is a devastating moment and Stiller is tremendous. But I wondered how much richer the scene could have been if there’d been some hint of the pain that is tormenting him, some momentary awareness of the devastation his words are causing to this woman who loves him. All the more confusing because if anyone deserved a “fuck you” from the core right then, it was Stiller.

Baumbach’s film is a little like Stiller’s performance; it’s hard to tell what he wants with it. It’s absolutely true that routine and boredom creep into any long relationship. It’s true that as we get older our horizons narrow; we start to lose our sense of wonder at the world. We lose what it is that makes childhood so important. A fantastic moment early in the film has Stiller and Watts unable to remember the basic plots of fairy tales. And so the re-introduction of Youth, in the form of Driver and Seyfried, is genuinely charming and refreshing for a while. They have the blissful, if at times foolish, wonder of children. It is easy to see how Stiller and Watts fall under their spell.

Then Baumbach’s script turns the tables on the Youths. He makes them both complete phonies. The second half of the film deals with Stiller’s discovery that Driver is a wily, deceitful huckster. His crime: the documentary he’s making has moments in it that are fake. The outrage this arouses in Stiller’s character is baffling. There is an extended scene at the end of the film in which he publicly exposes Driver’s deception and I must confess I had no idea what he was talking about.

As he rambles on about Art and Truth, the rest of the cast are reduced to silent observers. At one point, he reveals that he “loved, really loved” Driver, which is even more bewildering considering these are words we’ve never heard him say to his wife. Driver’s character, initially such a juicy combination of self-absorption and bombast, ends up standing around looking sullen and grumpy. Everyone seems to be waiting for Stiller to shut up. Watts looks… supportive — although it is hard to tell why, because at this late point he hasn’t even apologized to her for the “fuck you” from his core.

Stiller’s character has made his own documentary, which is featured throughout While Were Young. It’s a six-hour snore-fest and such a joke of self-indulgent pseudo-intellectual gibberish that every reference to it is painful. In Baumbach’s film, Charles Grodin comes out of retirement to play Watts’ father, a highly acclaimed documentary filmmaker. He gives Stiller some editing advice about the film, telling him to cut “the whole section on Turkish politics.”

When While Were Young finds the groove of delight and finely observed satire, it has the sharp, joyous thrill of discovery to it. And that’s a rare treat in contemporary American cinema. When it marches off into moral frustration about creative Right and Wrong, it becomes a little like Stiller’s documentary. Cut the Turkish politics.

Tom DiCillo is one of the founding members of the American independent film movement. Beginning with his first film, Johnny Suede (1991) starring Brad Pitt, and continuing with Living in Oblivion starring Steve Buscemi, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy and Delirious, DiCillo’s films have been internationally recognized and awarded. His film, When You’re Strange, the first documentary about The Doors, won the Grammy in 2012.