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

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem