Film reviews: While We’re Young | The Water Diviner

BEN Stiller stars in a sharp satire on the fetishisation of youth by two middle-aged un-hipsters, writes Alistair Harkness

Ben Stiller in While We're Young. Picture: Contributed
Ben Stiller in While We're Young. Picture: Contributed

While We’re Young (15)

Directed by: Noah Baumbach

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Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried

Star rating: ****

Having explored the world of twenty-somethings and fortysomethings with his last two movies, Frances Ha and Greenberg, director Noah Baumbach combines both to gently lacerating effect in While We’re Young, a sharp satire about the middle-aged fear of youth.

A perfectly cast Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a middle-aged couple in a personal and creative rut. Though they’re sort of happy together, they’ve taken their relationship a little for granted, to the point where they’ve suddenly realised they no longer have any fun together. Conscious of time slipping away, they’re reaching an age where they’ve started romanticising their youth, forgetting all about the anxiety that comes from trying to live up to the idea of being young and carefree (something Frances Ha captured so well when Greta Gerwig’s character hightailed it to Paris on a whim and ended up broke, jet-lagged and sleeping through most of her stay, completely missing the friends she’d flown out to surprise-visit).

Work, of course, is a perennial excuse. Josh, who’s eight, or maybe ten years (the number keeps changing) into production of an ultra-pretentious-sounding documentary about the military industrial complex, has been using his obsession with artistic integrity as an excuse to avoid confronting his own fear of failure and unrealised potential. Cornelia, too, has been living a little in the shadow of her father (Charles Grodin, sublime), a famous documentary maker.

They’re also childless, and while they seem to have made peace with the fact, this has made them outsiders among their friends, all of whom are fully paid-up members of the “baby cult”: the having-it-all fortysomethings who’ve turned their backs on their old lives to self-righteously devote themselves to parenting their children. Here the film captures the casual cruelty of insensitive parents as they cast pitying looks at Cornelia, who manages to shrug it off most of the time, but is not averse to calling it out when it gets too much. (The film is amusingly honest about the realities of late parenting, too: Josh’s best friend – a deftly cast Adam Horovitz – announces that he’s still the most important person in his life, even after he’s agreed to become a househusband.)

It’s small wonder, then, that when Josh and Cornelia meet young hipster couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) they should be so smitten by their youthful vibrancy and live-in-the-moment exuberance. The sort of people who go to street beach parties, make a point of eschewing an over-reliance on technology and adorn their apartment with the kinds of pop culture ephemera Josh and Cornelia long ago expunged from their lives – racks of vinyl, stacks of VHS, old stereo equipment, projectors – this pair of skinny-jeans-wearing analogue fetishists are like hipper, cooler, ghost-like versions of Josh and Cornelia’s younger selves, there to haunt them with the folly-inducing prospect of perhaps being able to relive that life once again.

That comes to pass via a convoluted plot in which Jamie panders to Josh’s vanity in order to secure his and Cornelia’s help on a documentary project. Though Jamie and Josh have a lot of similarities, Jamie is unburdened by Josh’s quest for artistic authenticity. Rightly or wrongly, he sees everything as fair game and while his casual reappropriation of previous generations’ cultural signifiers may mask his own ruthless desire to succeed and usurp Josh and his peers, who’s to say that he’s wrong? He’s getting stuff done and doesn’t every generation have to find its own way to express itself?

The film slyly skewers everyone over the course of 90 minutes and while its sympathies clearly lie with Stiller and Watts, charges of finger-wagging generational bias are offset by Stiller’s innate unlikeability. Even when he’s right, he makes it hard to be completely on his side, something the acute and witty script has a lot of fun playing around with. Watts, too, is hilarious, gamely indulging in hip-hop dance classes to escape the banality of her infantilised, baby-crazy friends. And Driver plays the Machiavellian hipster to perfection, dropping in just the right level of contrived speech patterns and modish behaviour to be authentic without slipping into parody. Only Amanda Seyfried is underserved as Darby, a disappointing oversight on Baumbach’s part, given his usual flair for fleshing out all the characters in his films.

But that’s a minor complaint. Baumbach has made an amusing, richly textured film about generational conflict that’s wise enough to understand that there’s no point trying to suppress or deny youth its moment. Time will do that far more effectively.

The Water Diviner (15)

Directed by: Russell Crowe

Starring: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney

Star rating: ***

Built around a father’s search for the bodies of his three sons after they fail to return from Gallipoli, Russell Crowe’s directorial debut proves an odd mix of war-is-hell realism and slushy romance. It doesn’t always work but is at least handled with sincerity.

Set in the aftermath of the First World War, initially this is a film about the numbing effects of grief. Homing in on Crowe’s character, Joshua, an outback farmer with a skill for finding water on seemingly barren land, the film sets the scene by jumping back and forth between his life in the home he shares with his now-catatonic wife, and flashbacks to happier days raising their children. Filling their heads with stories from The Arabian Nights, Joshua secretly blames himself for allowing his sons to go off to war. For a man who relies on gut instinct, he’s tortured by his failure to heed his own misgivings, allowing his boys to get swept up in a cause that had been misrepresented to the public as a great adventure. As a character, Joshua is not exactly heroic, then, and as easy as Crowe (above) finds it to portray rugged masculinity on screen, he’s good at capturing the shame of a father who knows he’s failed his family. But Crowe the director doesn’t have as firm a grip on the material as Crowe the actor. When Joshua travels to Gallipoli to find his sons’ remains, for instance, an unconvincingly sketched romance between Joshua and an Istanbul widow (played by Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) ensues. Goofy scenes of Joshua bonding with her kid and misunderstanding the complexities of her situation show comedy and melodrama are not Crowe’s forte.

He’s far better when digging into the Turkish experience of the conflict and the psychological effect that losing the battle but winning the war had on the Anzacs. Working with Peter Jackson’s regular cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, Crowe favours classically composed shots – some of them beautiful – that tell the story cleanly and effectively, if not always in the most exciting fashion.

The Duff (12A)

Directed by: Ari Sandel

Starring: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Ken Jeong, Allison Janney

Star rating: ***

The once-ubiquitous American high school comedy has been supplanted by dystopian Young Adult franchises in recent years, but it makes a minor and surprisingly welcome comeback with The Duff. Taking playful aim at John Hughes classics The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, the film mashes up their plots but reconfigures the details to avoid completely betraying its female protagonist. Mae Whitman takes the lead as Bianca, the titular acronym-inspiring Designated Ugly Fat Friend, whose inadvertent role in the school social order as the gateway to her supposedly hotter friends leads to a cautious deal with her jock neighbour Wesley (Robbie Amell): if she helps him get his grades up, he’ll help her get her social life back on track. It sounds dumb and horrendous, but it’s not. The predictability of Bianca and Wesley realising they’re into each other not withstanding, the film’s sly acknowledgement that sporty guys are not only much more into arty girls than movies would have you believe, but aren’t actually all that interested in seeing said girls undergo some horrible, swan-like, Ally-Sheedy-in-The-Breakfast-Club transformation, actually feels like something worth encouraging.

The Dark Horse (15)

Directed by: James Napier Robertson

Starring: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrence

Star rating: ****

On paper, the story of a homeless bipolar chess prodigy who becomes an inspiration for at-risk youth sounds like the stuff of sudsy inspirational Hollywood melodrama. But this based-on-true-life New Zealand story takes a much rawer approach to the tale of the late Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis, inset). The film explores the damaging, uber-masculine gang culture that exists on the fringes of Maori culture, using chess as a simple but effective metaphor for the struggles Potini and his young charges face in the everyday battlefield of life. Zeroing in on the relationship between Potini and his about-to-be “patched” (indoctrinated into gang life) nephew, Mana (James Rolleston), the film boasts strong performances from both him and Curtis, with the latter in particular doing strong, measured work in the lead, keeping the bipolar tics in check while giving us a full sense of the mania that frequently overcame Potini’s life.

Altman (15)

Directed by: Ron Mann

Star rating: **

Despite being made in collaboration with Robert Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman, Ron Mann’s documentary about the director of M*A*S*H*, Nashville and Short Cuts is a depressingly conventional exploration of American cinema’s most fearless rebel. That the film intersperses banal anecdotes and home movie footage with poorly chosen clips of his films is bad enough, but it really ups the irritation factor by having his most famous collaborators (Julianne Moore, Bruce Willis, the late Robin Williams) offer insipid, soundbite definitions of the adjectival meaning of “Altmanesque” – a term that could never be applied to this film.

Blind (15)

Directed by: Eskil Vogt

Starring: Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Henrik Rafaelsen

Star rating: ***

In this intriguing Oslo-set drama, Ellen Dorrit Petersen stars as Ingrid, a newly blind novelist who projects her frustrations, fears and sexual desires onto the characters of a quasi-autobiographical novel she undertakes to process what she’s going through. With Ingrid’s mental anguish intensified by the paranoid belief that her husband is creeping around their apartment spying on her, the film dramatises the writing of her novel as she’s actually creating it, blurring the line between fiction and reality in sometimes confusingly comic ways to better illustrate the disorientation she now feels.