Last night, my wife and I watched While We’re Young, directed by Noah Baumbach, and starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried and Charles Grodin. While I had expected to get a couple of laughs, I did not expect this film to stimulate some deep contemplation. Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts) are aging. While their friends are having kids, they are not. This creates a tension that illuminates the human tendency to want all of our friends to be like us.
But Josh and Cornelia meet Jamie and Darby (Driver and Seyfried). This young couple seems to be so intentional about everything. And in a simple scene where they sit in a living room, a significant conversation about the use of Google occurs. They can’t remember the name of a particular flavor of an ingredient. So, Ben commences to “Google” it. But, Jamie responds, “No, wait, let’s try to think of it first.” They can’t think of it. Jamie then decides, “Let’s just not know.” This is unheard of. Unthinkable in the digital age. But ironically, Jamie has stumbled onto something: Could the constant utilization of search engines be simultaneously increasing the sophistication of the search engine while also having a negative effect on our brains? Just as a muscle atrophies if it’s not used, well…the brain is a muscle. You know all those times you try hard to remember something, and it finally comes to you? Well, if there is no longer a need to do this, because of a device on our person 24/7, why wouldn’t that cranial muscle atrophy as well?
Spoiler Alert in the following section!
The film is full of these kinds of questions. To use or not to use? Vinyl, CD, MP3? Cars, Bikes? In nearly every scene there is some kind of engagement with a different tool. Rather than cast judgment, the film explores the use of these tools. It even hints at a liturgical effect, a shaping effect that occurs over time. But the harrowing conclusion that I came to after watching this film is that the ultimate shaping that is occurring more and more is that we are becoming increasingly narcissistic.
Spoiler alert: Josh’s new friend lies to him. In the world that Josh comes from, that meant that you weren’t really friends. Friends do not deceive one another. But in the new world, maybe they do? Maybe it’s more common than we know. I mean, isn’t what we choose to share on Facebook a type of deception?
While my wife and I talked about it, she said, “Naw, Jamie didn’t love Josh. He was just using him; he was a jerk.” But I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s that simple. Because Jamie looks at Josh and says, “No, you are my friend”—even though he blatantly deceived him. But if I am the sum and seat of the universe and if my goals are individualistic and community really means nothing, why not lie?
The film ends while Josh and Cornelia are in an airport. As they look across the seats, they see a one-year-old playing with a cell phone. This one-year-old navigates the cell phone with a mature level of sophistication. The baby actually calls someone even though she is unable to speak coherently. The moment this baby has this device in her hand, she is a disciple. She is entering a world and in turn being shaped by the norms of that world. A liturgy has been engaged and accepted.
While We’re Young is an important thought-provoking film that takes our modern digital, narcissistic world and turns it on its head so that we can take an honest look at her. There’s much to be learned and enjoyed. You may laugh, you may cry, but if you’re up to engaging it with your mind, you may just find yourself thinking about it for a while. And hey, even though deep thought may be becoming a lost art, the director of this film seems to argue that it is an art form worth cultivating.