As Noah Baumbach made his way to the microphone Saturday night at the Princess of Wales Theatre, I was more curious to see the movie than to hear what he would say. He’s one of those self-deprecating filmmakers who speak softly in real life but come to life on screen.
Quite simply, Baumbach finds some of the cleverest, subtlest ways to get at human behavior as any filmmaker around, and he’s done it again in “While We’re Young,” using the debates swirling around veracity in documentary filmmaking as a starting point.
After the bumbling delight of his last outing, “Frances Ha,” in which he pulled apart the realities of living in New York to examine the perils of adulthood for one incredibly optimistic but inept young women played with a lovely light touch by Greta Gerwig, the writer-director has grown a bit more introspective in “While We’re Young.”
Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver are his chosen chess pieces. Marriage and moviemaking is the game. Stiller and Watts play a settled couple. Seyfried and Driver are free spirits. All their lives are tangled up in the world of making documentary film. Things happen when their worlds collide.
But my interest here is the filmmaker, rather than the film. It’s fascinating to see how the passing years are working their way on Baumbach. His films may not reflect his real life per se, but they always reflect his thinking, and digging into middle-age and artistic sensibilities has clearly given Baumbach pause.
Using the interplay of the two couples, he begins teasing out interesting notions about the very foundations of things. Documentary filmmaking and contemporary marriage, in this case, pulled between the tendency of the young to discard tradition and the old, or even slightly older, to cling to it.
That might sound dreadfully dull if the wry observational Baumbach weren’t the one putting it all under the microscope. But he is. So relax. He does.
Like the central idea of “While We’re Young,” Baumbach continues to let himself evolve, with both introspection and a certain ease. While there is a classic Baumbach imprint on each of his movies, there is a marked individuality too. As the director embraces the process of change, so can we feel it in his work.
It’s not unlike the way he embraced his stars on the stage just before the film’s gala screening at the Toronto International Film Festival Saturday night.
“I love these people,” he said, nodding to Stiller, Watts, Driver and Seyfried, who were all lined up next to him. But watching “While We’re Young” begin to unfold a few minutes later, it’s easy to believe that he meant the characters as well as the actors.
Actually, I think he might just love them all equally.