Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 37 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
In order to explore this film adequately there might be spoilers for you in the last half of this review, so you might want to wait to see the film before finishing.
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?
These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another…
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
Noah Baumbach’s latest movie is both funny and insightful in its depiction of generational differences, the struggle to stay young while growing older, and even an examination of the philosophy of documentary filmmaking. Not bad for what could have been just another throwaway domestic comedy!
The passion for life seems to have left the Manhattan dwelling middle-aged couple Josh Srebnick (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) until they meet Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a couple in their mid-twenties. Their lives are soon changed completely—some of it for the good, but by no means everything. If you enjoyed director/writer Baumbach’s take on a failed dancer in Frances Ha, you will revel in this more complicated film.
Josh has one acclaimed documentary to his name, but that was over eight years ago. He has been struggling to finish his second one, a film similar to the one in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, in that it is about a boring Jewish political philosopher with whom he has become infatuated, so much so that it dilutes his original intention to expose the war machine that dominates our country. His father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), who as a renown documentarian had first inspired Josh (and whose daughter he had married), observes that at “six and a half hours it is seven hours too long.” He suggests dropping several long portions, but Josh cannot bring himself to make the cuts. The couple are living on what Cornelia makes as an assistant to her father and Josh’s small remuneration as a community college teacher.
The couple are childless because they want to keep their lives unfettered so, as Josh says, they can pick up and fly off to Paris – except they never have. “Maybe the point is that we have the freedom. What we do with it isn’t important,” Josh says, though this rationalization does not seem to satisfy either of them. They also are childless by the misfortunes of nature—Cornelia has suffered a couple of miscarriages. Thus, accepting their childless state, they have fallen away from most of the childbearing friends of their youth. When their best friends Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia) conceive and give birth to a second child, Josh and Cornelia soon become alienated from them as well because all conversation centers around child-rearing concerns, with the infants often present, strapped to the middles of the parents. Josh and Cornelia find themselves always having to explain—no, defend—their single parent lifestyle.
The demise of their relationship occurs in the painful but humorous episode in which Josh and Cornelia show up unannounced at their friend’s apartment, only to discover that a party to which they had not been invited is going on. As they stand awkwardly in the doorway talking with Marina, several new arrivals push by, the hostess’s voice noticeably changing to a warm tone as she greets them. Eventually Marina allows them in, but as you might suspect, Josh and Cornelia did not feel at home.
Change enters their lives when, during an inept lecture by Josh to the listless students at his college class, he spots two visitors in the back of the tiered classroom. They are Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), Brooklynites almost half Josh’s age. The visitors explain that they are aspiring documentarians who managed to see Josh’s first film on VHS and decided to come and meet him. Because of their lavish praise, Josh feels compelled to accept their invitation to lunch to continue the conversation.
Basking in the glow of their admiration, Josh soon is introducing them to a reluctant Cornelia, the result being that they soon have become a foursome, hanging out together—though the terms of the relationship are tilted toward the younger couple having more influence on the older one. One little hint about the nature of that relationship that I recognized only after the fact was that from the beginning Jamie allowed Josh to pick up the tab at the various restaurants they meet in with no gesture later of reciprocation.
The difference in the lifestyles of the generations is well shown by the various back and forth cuts between the couples:
- Josh and Cornelia are into Facebook, NetFlix and the use of CDs, whereas Jamie and Darby claim not to use the social media, preferring to search out people and meet them face to face.
- Jamie and Darby’s hip apartment has wall shelves crammed with vinyl records, classical, rock, and so on. They claim never to have owned a CD, and also have a huge VHS tape collection rather than DVDs. We laugh when Josh tells his wife, “It’s like their apartment is full of stuff we threw out.”
- Josh plays video games; the young couple play old fashioned board games.
- Jamie writes on a typewriter, whereas, Josh, of course, uses his laptop.
- Josh and Cornelia had been content to sit at home doing the same old things, whereas their new friends are engaged in such unusual activities as raising a chicken in a cage and making their private brand of ice cream with such unconventional flavors as avocado.
- Jamie is so retro that he wears a hat, in and out of doors, whereas, like most males since the Sixties revolutions, Josh goes bareheaded.
- In a car obsessed world (for New Yorkers the taxi), Jamie and Darby usually ride bikes everywhere. Soon their two new friends are following suit.
- The older couple seem not to have thought about religion or spirituality; Jamie and Darby admire an Ayahuasca shaman at whose home they join, with Josh and Cornelia in tow, with a circle of others who endure a bizarre ceremony of meditation, embibing a hallucinating concoction designed to induce the vomitting up of demons—all the white-clad participants are equipped with buckets.
Josh and Cornelia feel energized by their contact with Jamie and Darby. The older woman even joins Darby at her hiphop dance exercise class, at first feeling like a fish out of water, her awkward moves uncoordinated with those of the young members. Eventually she gains the hang of it, in their own apartment no longer walking but dancing across the rooms. Even Josh imitates her.
“I really admire how you guys are in the moment,” Josh tells the couple. “The only two feelings I had left were wistful and disdainful.” The effect on them is almost as if Josh and Cornelia, unwittingly worried about growing old, have discovered the Fountain of Youth. Then comes a discovery, having to do with Darby’s unusual icecream that leads Josh to believe that there are hidden motives behind Jamie and Darby’s first seeking him out. By now the pair have so wormed their way into Josh’s life that he has introduced them to his father-in-law, leading in turn to all of them helping the couple to mount their own documentary project. Josh even has offered to allow them to use the best segments of his interviews with the professor to make a point in their film.
As work moves forward, Cornelia and her father Leslie, along with Josh’s film editor whom he had not been able to pay thus far, form a tight-knit film production team that does not include Josh. It is a telling moment when they shoot new footage of the professor, and there is Josh idly standing in the background—obviously not relishing being excluded. Cornelia, enjoying working as a valued team member rather than living in the shadow of her husband, becomes estranged by Josh’s growing hostility, leading us to wonder, “Can this marriage be saved?”
Back to Josh’s discovery, centering on some video footage shot by Jamie and Darby; he notices a discrepancy in what the pair had told him and what he sees on the video, so he sets out on a journey that takes him out of town and around NYC to talk to the people Jamie has mentioned. From his investigation he is appalled to learn the deceitful lengths to which Jamie has gone to bring about the production of his film.
When Josh confronts him outside the banquet hall where Leslie is the guest of honor at a ceremony honoring his career as a filmmaker, we see the difference between their philosophies, one that apparently is generational. Josh quotes New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, “Fiction is about me, documentary is about you.” Josh and his father-in-law believe that filmmaking is about “capturing the truth of experience.” Documentarians who follow in the tradition of Frederick Wiseman allow the subject to present truth, rather than beginning a project with the filmmaker’s preconceived idea, the result being that the film becomes the filmmaker’s view rather than the subject’s. Thus for Josh and Leslie filmmaking is a process of discovery.
Jamie and Darby, however, see no problem in manipulation, thus the complicated, carefully arranged process by which he had used Josh and Cornelia to meet Leslie and benefit from his experience and his connections for the sake of their film. For them the finished film is what is important – it is the experience itself of the filmmaking that weighs in more than an attempt to capture truth. Josh, inappropriately unloading his findings at the banquet table in front of his father-in-law, is astonished that Leslie does not agree with his charge that Jamie and Darby are charlatans.
In this attempt to unmask Jamie and Darby and sabotage their film project, Baumbach again gives a nod to Woody Allen versus Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but with the added funny contrasts between generational values. Although not as dark as Allen’s film, Baumbach’s is about as funny, with punch lines delivered at regular intervals that will make you laugh. And when it turns a bit dark toward the climax, it will leave viewers with plenty to think and talk about filmmaking itself. There is very little judgment offered, the filmmaker leaving this up to the viewers.
What a delightful and bizarre mixture (a little like Darby’s ice cream) this film is, with fine performances by the talented cast. We might wish for a little more screen time for the two women, especially, Amanda Seyfried, but when she is on, she is really on! And Naomi Watts interacts wondrously with Ben Stiller, the latter who has found a role perfect for his talents.
The last sequence of the film is a very hopeful one, showing the growth in Josh and Cornelia’s character and relationship. Josh has apparently been able to move on past his anger and disappointment over Jamie and Darby. We might have a little concern that they will become too much like the friends of their generation, but then that could be the subject of another film. This current one almost cries out for group discussion. Just make sure that it is an intergenerational one.
(c) 2015 A24
The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the April Visual Parables.