REVIEW: “While We’re Young”


Noah Baumbach has made a career out of making movies about unlikable or generally unhappy characters. Many of his walking human complexities exist in various stages of lethargy, denial, or dissatisfaction. But at the same time the characters he creates drip with humanity and they are fascinating to watch. Yet with all of that being said, I don’t always fully go for his movies.

“While We’re Young” is another of Baumbach’s mixed bags. It is a sincere and genuinely human comedy that connects due to its observational honesty and its willingness to address real emotional struggles. But like a few other Baumbach projects, it doesn’t fully see its promise through and the final act of the film wanders away from what makes the story initially so compelling.


Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia Schrebnick, a middle-aged couple living in New York City. Their past difficulties in having a baby are highlighted with the birth of their best friends’ daughter. Josh and Cornelia attempt to brush aside their feelings of disappointment and unfulfillment by focusing on the freedoms they have as a family of two. But even that is effected by the plain ol’ fact that they are just getting old.

Josh is a movie documentarian who has been stuck in the rut of an eight year film project that shows no signs of nearing completion. After teaching a continuing education class at a local college he is approached by young twenty something couple Jamie and Darby Massey (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). The Massey’s invite Josh and Cornelia to dinner where we learn Jamie is an aspiring documentarian and a huge fan of Josh’s first film.

Josh and Cornelia grow infatuated with their new young hipster friends and their exaggerated retro styles. They feel young and energetic whenever they are around Jamie and Darby and they begin feeling a disconnect with their old friends. But is this simply a refuge from their insecurities about getting older, or is the old adage correct – you’re only as old as you feel?

For most of the film Baumbach explores that question through a number of smart and witty conversations and situations. We see the Schrebnick’s, particularly Josh, open up and embrace new things. He puts aside some of his closed-minded, exclusionist perspectives and sees creativity and life in general through a new lens. But at the same time Baumbach is shrewdly pointing a finger, not at Josh but at the Masseys; asking compelling questions about the younger generation.


Baumbach’s film works on so many levels but it also has its flaws. Stiller and Watts each convincingly play their individual parts. Yet there are moments where I couldn’t quite buy into them as a couple. There are also a few moments where the normal sharp wit gives way to the juvenile. For example, an Ayahuasca scene leads to a running vomit gag that never seems to end. I mean who doesn’t laugh at vomit, right? And the biggest problem is in the last act when the story loses its focus a bit and ventures off in a direction that simply wasn’t that interesting.

Baumbach is a unique filmmaker who tells unique stories. His tales rarely venture outside of his confined view of life, love, and relationships but that’s what provides his films with their own flavor. “While We’re Young” gives its audience things to ponder and to chew on while also being deftly funny and unflinchingly human. It just can’t quite see its strengths through till the end. It’s still a good film. Not “Frances Ha” good but hey…


3.5 stars

Top 5 Performances of 2013 – Lead Actor

A light painting of the year 2013 written against a black background

This is it – the final ‘Best of’ list for the 2013 movie year. For me, narrowing down this particular category to just five was the most difficult of any of these best performance lists. It pained me to leave off so many great performances from 2013, but someone decided that Top 5 lists can only feature five picks so I’m sticking to it. No need to drag this out any further. Here are my five favorite performances from a lead actor:

#5 – Robert Redford – “All is Lost


All is Lost” may be a film that feels too familiar for some but I felt it had more to it than you may first perceive. But regardless of that, no one can doubt the incredible work from 77-year old Robert Redford. It’s such a physically demanding role and we immediately notice Redford’s 100% commitment. But being he is the only cast member, he is tasked with having the audience invest in him and he definitely succeeds. Considering there are only three lines of dialogue in the entire film, it is amazing how much he tells us through expressions and gestures. It’s just brilliant work.

#4 – Bruce Dern – “Nebraska


What a joy is was to watch the great Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska“. Dern’s career started in 1960 and since then he has shown a wide range of mostly supporting roles. But here he gives one of the saddest yet most endearing performances of the year. His character isn’t the warmest or the nicest. Yet over time you begin to sense he’s more than we may think. Payne’s script brilliantly hides little details about the character and the audience gets to put the pieces together as we go. But it’s Dern that keeps us fixated and invested. With so many big and showy performances this year Dern probably won’t take home an award. But he’s certainly worthy of one.

#3 – Oscar Isaac – “Inside Llewyn Davis


I’ve always been a fan of Oscar Isaac and I was thrilled to see him get the lead role in the Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis“. He certainly didn’t disappoint. There are so many things I loved about Isaac’s work. First, he’s the perfect fit for the Coen’s signature unique and slightly offbeat lead character. But Llewyn Davis is much more than that and Isaac masterfully peels back all of these layers. Another beautiful element to this performance can be found in the music. Isaac performed all of his own songs and the musical scenes in the film were all recorded live, never dubbed. It’s just another reason this performance was so good.

#2 – Chiwetel Ejiofor – “12 Years a Slave

12 years

Perhaps the most daring and courageous performance of the year came from British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. What tremendous work he does in Steve McQueen’s gripping and bold “12 Years a Slave“. There is nothing disingenuous or halfhearted about Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon Northup. With amazing commitment and a ton of emotion he brings this reflective and unsettling story to life. There are so many scenes that will cut deep and stay with you well after the credits role. You immediately connect with him. You root for him. You hurt with him. If done poorly this role could have sunk the whole film. Ejiofor never allows that to happen.

#1 – Mads Mikkelsen – “The Hunt


Regardless of the criminal omissions by the Award types, Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in “The Hunt” was my favorite of the year. The story itself is tough and unsettling and it needed a good actor to give the film the gut-punch it was looking for. Mikkelsen is the perfect guy. It is painful to watch what his character endures both physically and emotionally. Mikkelsen’s performance invests us in this man’s story, his plight, and his emotional state as things unfold. We watch and shutter as this man’s life is changed forever. This is an immensely crowded field full of great actors and performances. It says a lot that Mads Mikkelsen is at the top of that field. Brilliant work. HONORABLE MENTIONS: Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips“), Hugh Jackman (“Prisoners“), Christian Bale (“American Hustle“), Joaquin Phoenix (“Her“), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station“), Ben Stiller (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“), Jude Law (“Side Effects“) So what do you think? Who did I miss or who did I rate too high? Please take time to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

REVIEW: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

mitty poster

I’m no card carrying Ben Stiller fan but I was really interested to see his vision of “Walter Mitty”. This is the second film based on the 1939 James Thurber short story and some doubted it would ever see the light of day. Various versions of the script were tossed around and actors such as Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, and Sacha Baron Cohen were all in line to play the lead role. But after years in development limbo, it was Stiller who was signed to not only star in but direct Steve Conrad’s final script.

Stiller and Conrad use Thurber’s vision of Walter Mitty as a reserved average Joe who experiences the life he wants within his vivid world of daydreams. But the movie ends up pushing that aside and goes off on its own, becoming a film about fulfillment and self-discovery realized through a pretty remarkable journey. I was fine with that as long as it served the picture well. There are moments of greatness in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and there are scenes that really drew me in. But there was also something missing – something that holds the film back and keeps it from being the great movie we are often teased with.


In this modern telling, Walter Mitty (Stiller) works in the ‘photo negative assets’ department of Life magazine. One morning the employees get news that the publication will be turned into an online-only magazine making many of their jobs “nonessential”. Acclaimed photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends the magazine a negative that he believes to be perfect for Life magazine’s final cover. But Walter misplaces the negative. So with his job on the line and the pompous transition supervisor (Adam Scott) breathing down his neck, Walter sets out on a globe-trotting adventure to find O’Connell and hopefully the negative.

Walter’s journey takes him to some gorgeous locations including Greenland, Iceland, and The Himalayans. Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh draw us into these places sometimes with breathtaking perspective. They invigorate Walter’s journey and in some ways substantiate his personal transformation. But I also struggled with certain aspects of his adventure. There are so many obvious questions that the film prefers you not ask. And there are also an insane amount of conveniences that aid Walter’s quest. Regardless of the situation there is almost always a perfect out for him. Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to it but it isn’t hinted at from the story.

“Walter Mitty” also seems to have a small identity crisis. There are some pretty funny bits early in the film but then there is a long stretch where it takes things pretty seriously. The humor is back-burnered and it becomes a casually paced drama with a fair share of high points and lulls. It lacks a consistency that great films have but it also had an unexplainable attraction that I never could shake.


As for Stiller’s work in front of the camera, I was really impressed. In a year featuring a number of towering performances, I wouldn’t call Stiller’s the best. But there is a legitimate sympathetic charm to what he brings to the Walter Mitty character. I was really drawn to him and personally sympathized with his perception of himself and his inadequacies. Stiller magically captures all of that. He does lose some of his attraction as his character changes towards the end but I still love this performance. I also thought Kristen Wiig was good but underwritten as the proverbial ‘girl of Walter’s dreams’ and Shirley MacClaine is good in a smaller role. Adam Scott is harder to gauge. His performance isn’t that bad but the writing makes this typical corporate bad guy a little too on the nose.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a tough movie to score. It certainly gets points for its visual style and gorgeous locales. It also gets points for Stiller’s fine performance and the sweet infectious charm of his character. Unfortunately it is an uneven film with a few too many contrivances and the occasional lulls. But yet there is something about the movie that I can’t dismiss. It has stuck with me and left the impression that I really need to see it again. That’s usually a sign that a movie works, at least on some levels.