A Schlemiel Surprise: A Review of Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young”

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Comedy is full of surprises. But that’s not always the case. More often than not, we get the same types of stock characters who do what…they always do.   However, sometimes a stock comic character may surprise us.   And since Hollywood is full of actors who play the same types of comic roles, the same can be said for the actors who become more banal with each performance.   One such comic character, which has been cycled and recycled by Hollywood for nearly a century, is the schlemiel and one of the most popular comic actors to play him/her is Ben Stiller.   Stiller has received a reputation as a schlemiel by way of the Ben Stiller Show (1992) and films like The Royal Tannenbaums (2001), Zoolander (2001), Meet the Fockers (2004), and Tropic Thunder (2008). In the wake of these schlemiel performances, it was Noah Baumbach who looked to cast Stiller as a different kind of schlemiel in his film Greenberg (2010). However, that film was not a pleasant surprise. In fact, it received harsh criticism which found Baumbach guilty of sacrificing comedy for bleakness. And in the process, the schlemiel became a complete schlimazel.

In response to this negative reception, Baumbach has decided to give the schlemiel and Stiller another chance in his recently released film, While We’re Young (2015). And, unlike Greenberg, this film has a few (not many) pleasant surprises.   But, as far as the subject of the middling schlemiel goes, it has a lot in common with Greenberg. The banal fact of aging should prompt us to ask what is being suggested when filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and Judd Apatow – This is Forty (2012) – actors like Seth RogenNeighbors (2014) and Woody AllenAnnie Hall (1976) and Anything Else (2001) – and writers like Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story) and Saul Bellow (Herzog) use age – or the aging Jewish body – to anchor the schlemiel in reality.

Noah Baumbach is particularly interested in casting Ben Stiller as the middling schlemiel and he shows us two entirely different approaches to how we view the schlemiel and its meaning.   To be sure, Greenberg is a character who makes us feel pity for the aging schlemiel since, in that film, he is without a job, a home, or any clear direction. In addition, he has major relationship problems with a female schlemiel in the film named Florence (who is played by Gretta Gerwig).   Nothing seems to be going right with him and age is used to distance the character from the viewer and seal his sad solitary fate. Ian Parker and Richard Brody have only negative things to say of Greenberg. And of all the critics at The New Yorker, only David Denby claims that, at the very least, Greenberg “learns something along the way.”   Although Greenberg’s aging is sad to behold, its negative effects are surprising since, through Baumbach’s script, direction, and cinematography, he goes from being a character touched by bad luck to one destroyed by it.

While Greenberg uses the aging schlemiel and surprises us with its negativity, While We’re Young also uses the aging schlemiel but it surprises us with its mitigated negativity.   Baumbach uses this mitigated negativity to help us distinguish between two different generations of people and their hopes. The schlemiel – played by Stiller – belongs to Generation X while the ironic and shrewd hipster – who dupes him – belongs to the millennials.

This it seems is the surprise.  But there are many more that give the film meaning and scope.

Ben Stiller plays a character named Josh who is married to Cornelia, who is played by Naomi Watts. She is the daughter of a successful filmmaker, Leslie (played by Charles Grodin). Stiller plays the double to Leslie. He is the schlemiel filmmaker who has been working on a documentary film for ten years. Like Woody Allen’s character Cliff Stern, of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Josh can’t finish a film which is – like all documentaries – based on life. The metaphor speaks to the schlemiel character who, as always, has a hard time making progress and becoming an “adult.”   But the contrasts don’t end here. Josh has another double.

Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darbie (Amanda Seyfried) – a young hipster couple – after he finishes teaching his “continuing education” class (he is a failed schlemiel academic, too). Jamie acts as if he is enthused with Josh’s work, Josh is surprised, and, out of spontaneous joy, he decides to surprise his wife by introducing Jamie and Darbie (who just happen to be eating at the same Chinese restaurant for dinner).

The surprises don’t stop there.

The more the two couples hang out, the more surprises there are. As this happens, we see Cornelia and Josh gradually separate from friends their age, Marina and Fletcher (played by Maria Dizzia and former Beastie Boy, Adam Horowitz). The more they hang out with Jamie and Darbie, the more Josh and Cornelia find the lifestyle of Marina and Fletcher to be banal and typical of aging people. At one point, Josh says that what makes life with the hipster couple so great is the fact that it is so “surprising” and that these surprises are the source of a new kind of life (a better life). Cornelia goes along with him and, in doing so, alienates herself and Josh from their old friends.

But once this happens, they stumble across an unexpected surprise that turns everything on its head.

When Josh learns that Jamie has approached his father in law to help him in his film and that one apparently spontaneous experience was staged for the sake of filming a scene, Josh connects the dots and is surprised to learn that he has been duped. Since the very beginning, Jamie lied to Josh in order to make him feel as if he was special. This was all for the sake of meeting and working with Josh’s father in law and become famous. Unlike Josh, Jamie makes his film over a few months (not ten years) by way of lying and tricking people while he films them. He is shrewd and this, to be sure, is what Cornelia’s father slights Josh for not being. The lesson: only a shrewd realist – and not a schlemiel purist – will make it in the film industry.

To be sure, the negative experience (surprise) of being duped is common to schlemiel fiction. I recently wrote on this vis-à-vis Saul Bellow’s, Herzog.   However, as I noted over there, just because a schlemiel learns he or she is duped doesn’t mean that he or she will stop being a schlemiel. They may just move on.

And this is what happens in While We’re Young. But there is a major difference. In Herzog or in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, the surprised schlemiel characters go away alone (Herzog goes back to the Berkshires from Chicago and Alvy Singer goes back to New York from LA).   In While We’re Young, Josh goes back to Cornelia and they both decide, at the end of the movie, to adopt a baby from Haiti. The last scene they are in transit to see the baby they are adopting and start, as Bernard Malamud said of his schlemiel S. Levin, a new life.

Regarding the surprise, the viewer also leaves the film learning something new. Baumbach uses the negative surprise to show how, in contrast to the hipsters, Generation X’ers like Josh and Cornelia are more moral. They have a sense of history and see film as a vehicle for justice. To be sure, Josh’s film – which took ten years to make – looked to document economic injustice and genocide. But, as Josh’s father-in-law says, “it’s too long…and boring.” People today are more interested in exciting documentaries and films and less interested in having an academic understanding of injustice. That’s the message which is articulated through the schlemiel’s failure to succeed.

However, the important thing to remember is that it is surprise that got him into this mess with Jamie and surprise which gets him out of it. Although it is negative, it gives this film weight. But, more importantly, this surprise gives the schlemiel’s middling age (and belatedness) a weight and moral purpose that it lacks in Seth Rogen’s latest film and in Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel and memoir.   (And unlike Woody Allen’s Anything Else, Baumbach doesn’t want to part with the schlemiel’s sense of astonishment.)

It shows us that the schlemiel is a moral figure, which is something we learn from Yiddish and Jewish American writers like Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer, and Saul Bellow. But what Baumbach shows us, today, is that the schlemiel’s failure can be used in a historical sense which can remind us what is at stake today in a world that is becoming more and more amoral. If wit and shrewd irony replace humility and hope (which are traits of the schlemiel), then we are in trouble. And, more importantly, if the surprised and astonished aspect of the schlemiel is exchanged for this kind of irony, one wonders how morality can be wed to comedy in the near future. Since sarcasm and satire, though effective, are often shrewd (and sometimes cruel), they make no room for the schlemiel.   These comic modalities privilege cold intelligence and political heft rather than the heart, innocence, and trust.

I’m glad Baumbach has refined the schlemiel in this way since, given all of the films on the schlemiel that are in vogue today, most of what we see are caricatures. Josh is not. His failures should mean something to us. And the fact that he and his wife can share a life, despite these failures, and decide to raise a child, is noteworthy. Unlike Saul Bellow’s Herzog, who wants to raise his child but can’t (because of a nasty divorce), and Alvy Singer who goes home alone, Josh and Cordelia can. And that…is a pleasant surprise since it suggests a relationship between the schlemiel, continuity, and fecundity.*

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*Cynthia Ozick, in her essay “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means,” associates “continuity” with morality in art and Emmanuel Levinas, in Totality and Infinity, associates “fecundity” with ethics.

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