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Boys to Man-boys

Hipsters and rockers grow the hell up




WHILE WE'RE YOUNG. Noah Baumbach can run a little hot and cold. His collaboration with Wes Anderson yielded The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), a near-perfect adventure comedy suffused with the sadness of missed opportunities and existential angst. The two re-teamed on Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) but my feelings about that one aren't nearly as strong. When he's not helping Anderson construct his beautiful diorama worlds, though, Baumbach gets as down and dirty with the mundanity/horror of everyday human behavior as anybody. He emerged from a 10-year hiatus with The Squid and the Whale (2005), a meditation on growing up that still has the power to put me in a dark mood, if I think about it enough. In 2012 he and Greta Gerwig released Frances Ha, a finely crafted and often infuriating black and white portrait of 20-somethings confronting the looming specter of Real Life in New York City. Both Squid and Frances are movies of undeniable honesty and emotional power, each difficult to watch for different reasons. The former touches too-real adolescent sore spots and explores less familiar territory through a relatable lens. The latter, despite some nostalgia for the aimless days of late youth, is populated with unlikeable types. While honest and authentic, its focus on "free-spirited" hipsters, with the occasional glance at dull wealthy people, is alienating. With While We're Young, Baumbach finds a middle ground between these extremes, gracefully aging the neuroses that often characterize his work, examining middle age and balancing humor, sadness and discomfort.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a documentary movie director and producer, respectively. Josh apprenticed under Cornelia's dad, a legend in the field, but broke away, fearing a loss of artistic identity. Cornelia has gone on to success producing her father's movies, while Josh has (mis)spent a decade cobbling together an increasingly elusive narrative. He's run out of money, and nearly out of motivation, when he meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Young hipsters with a great record collection and a devil-may-care/world-is-our-oyster attitude, they shine an unlikely but vivifying light onto Josh and Cornelia's relationship. In no time at all, he's wearing a shitty little fedora, she's taking hip-hop dance classes and their old friends — whose new baby drove a wedge between the couples initially — aren't inviting them to parties anymore. It's an exciting time, filled with sexual tension, cheap beer and a painfully on-the-nose ayahuasca retreat. As the relationship moves along, Josh allows Jamie greater and greater access to his professional resources and agrees to help in the production of Jamie's documentary project. Which is the moment when things go sideways.

My cynical side would like to call While We're Young an indictment of predatory hipsterism, but I think really that's just a testament to the richness of the material. Baumbach's writing, aided by the excellent cast, is subtle and nuanced, creating real-life ambiguity. Sure, Jamie may be seven-tenths awful manipulator, full of insufferable tics and hackneyed impulses, but he's also a pretty cool guy. Maybe he's just ambitious in a way that makes some of us uncomfortable. Josh, by the same token, is sensitive and unsure of himself, but he's also vindictive and resentful of his aging. As good as Watts and Seyfried are, their characters are primarily foils to their male counterparts. Although Cornelia and Darby both get brief opportunities for the airing of grievances, this one's about the boys. Or men who act like boys, which I suppose we all do, much of the time. R. 97m.

DANNY COLLINS. Despite the throwaway title and what might seem on paper like an eye-rollingly familiar scenario, this is one of those rare Hollywood offerings: an un-ironic yet watchable movie about being a grown-up.

We meet the titular singer as a nervous 20-something being interviewed by a rock rag on the release of his debut album. When the interviewer suggests that fame and money might change his perspective, Danny acknowledges his fear that this might be true. Smash cut to 40-some years later, and Danny (Al Pacino) is still on the road, making millions half-singing Diamond/Jones style garbage ballads. He's got a McLaren Mercedes, an Los Angeles mansion, a formidable collection of scarves and a trophy girlfriend he can barely tolerate. He's also self-medicating with booze and cocaine to ward off his daily suicidal thoughts. When his manager/best friend (Christopher Plummer) presents him with a personal letter to him from John Lennon, which was intercepted and never delivered (a true story and the basis for the movie), Danny re-evaluates and makes some changes. He cancels the remainder of his tour and sets up camp in a Hilton in New Jersey to attempt a connection with the son he's never met (Bobby Cannavale), his wife (Jennifer Garner) and their daughter. Meanwhile, he's trying to strike up a romance with the hotel manager (Annette Bening).

This could easily dissolve into PG mush, but writer Dan Fogelman (Crazy Stupid Love, Last Vegas), making his directing debut, navigates things artfully, allowing his characters to make mistakes and act like obstinate fools. Ultimately, sure it's about reconnection and redemption, but smart writing and terrific acting make up for the clichés. R. 107m.

John J. Bennett


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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill


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