Ben Still and Naomi Watts in While We're Young.
Show Hide image

Noah Baumbach's While We're Young goes beyond the usual tired hipster stereotypes

A Brooklyn-based comedy that's more than just jokes about avocado and almond-milk sorbet.

While We’re Young is a comedy about a Brooklyn couple in their forties, Josh and Cornelia, played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, who become entranced by another couple, 15 or 20 years their junior. The youngsters, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), are personifications of hipsterdom who would not have looked out of place in the London lampooned by Nathan Barley ten years ago. The extensive vinyl collection, the thrift-shop clothes, the wilful infantilism, the self-consciously skittish energy. “I love how in the moment you guys are!” says Josh. “Jamie’s always moving,” says Darby. “You should see him on rollerskates!”

Darby makes avocado and almond-milk sorbet. They have books, not e-readers, and shun Google during impromptu parlour games (“That’s too easy!”). The characterisation feels slightly tired. Could this be because the project has been around the block a few times? It was ready to roll on several occasions, with various different casting permutations (James Franco, Cate Blanchett and Greta Gerwig were all attached at one time or another), before being stymied by financing or scheduling problems. Meanwhile, parodying hipsters became one of those sports in which pretty much anyone who wanted to could achieve a passable level of competence. Not unlike, say, badminton.

Luckily these caricatures aren’t really the point of the film. You would hope so, too, given that it is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, who was responsible for two of the most intelligent and nuanced US movies of the past five years—Greenberg and Frances Ha. Once he has had his fun showing Stiller buying an undesized trilby and pulling a muscle riding a bicycle through Brooklyn, or Watts taking hip-hop dance classes, Baumbach moves on instead to ask what motivates Josh and Cornelia’s adulation and what lies beneath the apparent vivacity of Jamie and Darby. In each case the answer is slightly more complicated than it might appear. Sure, the hipsters might seem cool but why don’t they ever pick up the bill? An easygoing demeanour can be strategic, even lucrative, when it gets you off paying for meals.

The move away from the amorphousness of those earlier, sophisticated films, and toward a formulaic comedy of life lessons, is not entirely to be regretted. As usual, Baumbach’s writing is alert to the lies people tell themselves to avoid combusting spontaneously in a flaming ball of self-loathing. “The point is we have the freedom,” Josh tells Cornelia as they discuss the free time that childlessness affords them. “What we do with it isn’t that important.” The screenplay is good also on the transformation by twentysomethings of low culture into unironic markers of quality, a phenomenon that has not happened until now. “I remember when this song was considered bad,” says Josh, with wonder in his eyes, when Jamie plays Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” It would have been more satisfying if the older characters in the movie didn’t ultimately represent an enduring authenticity but it’s still worth it to hear Josh’s friend tell him bluntly: “You’re an old man with a hat.”

My favourite scene in the movie takes place when Josh, a blocked and uncommercial documentary filmmaker who has been toiling for a decade on the same project, goes to meet Hedge Fund Dave, played by Ryan Serhant, to whom he is pitching his movie in the hope of raising funding. You could imagine how the scene might play out in a Woody Allen film (and While We’re Young is very Woody Allen in the way it pits old against young, wisdom against naivety). Josh would be shown as the integrity-driven artist while the prospective financier would be a philistine with a bank account where his soul should be. But it doesn’t play out that way. Both men are insufferable but for different reasons. Josh is barricaded behind his preconceptions, his shame at having to come begging for funding, his feelings of superiority. Dave is simply a doofus. Told by Josh that he has 100 hours of footage, Dave gasps: “The movie is 100 hours long?”

But it is Dave who comes off better in the honesty of his responses—his eyes first glazing over and then drifting irresistibly toward the screen of his mobile phone as Josh blathers on. Baumbach has found comic gold in Serhant, who is a real-estate agent and star of the US reality show Million Dollar Listing New York (no, me neither). His timing and body language, and the dopey inflections in his line readings, are note-perfect. He only gets two scenes (he pops up later being hilariously exuberant at a party) but he’s the zingiest element of the film. It doesn’t really matter whether Serhant decides to build on this acting career or stick with the property market. That pitching scene can still stand as a miniature comic masterclass and a lesson in gentle upstaging. He stills Stiller. He drives Driver off the screen.

While We’re Young is released 3 April.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the chief victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser