Theory: While We're Young, the new film from Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach, is about the Catfish guys.
But the tart comedy, which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is about plenty of other things too. Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, and Amanda Seyfried, While We're Young is an arrested development story about a fortysomething New York couple that befriends a pair of twentysomething hipsters. It's like a New York intellectual's take on Neighbors, only instead of an escalating prank war, there are arguments at Lincoln Center. It retains the bite for which Baumbach's dialogue is known, but it's also warmer, and feels like his most mainstream movie to date.
Then there's the inside baseball aspect of how it seems to be inspired by a few real directors working in the indie and documentary scene, a film à clef angle likely to matter to maybe a dozen people. The Catfish comparison, though, is something else, leading to a fight about the rules of nonfiction that becomes one of the canniest kids-these-days delineations you'll find on screen, not to mention a pertinent one in our world of semi-reality fare.
Josh (Stiller) is a documentarian who teaches on the side, and his wife, Cornelia (Watts), produces her famous filmmaker father's (Charles Grodin) work. After having difficulty conceiving, they decide, with not a little defensiveness, that they're happy without kids and with the freedom they don't really take advantage of. Josh has been working on the same project for eight years, a sprawling, fabulously dull-sounding doc he describes in terms of war, materialism, and industrialism, always concluding with, "It's really about America."
Feeling alienated from their baby-having friends their own age, Josh and Cornelia fall in with a pair of twentysomethings instead — the wonderfully named Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried), who live in a Brooklyn loft in Bushwick with a roommate, a pet chicken, and kittens named "Bad Cop" and "Good Cop." They wear hats and they're always making or doing things — having "street beach" parties, riding bikes everywhere, and partaking in ayahuasca ceremonies. Jamie shoots videos ("Who's The Most Famous Person In Your Cell Phone?") and professes to be a huge fan of Josh's work, while Darby makes ice cream in flavors like avocado and almond milk and takes Cornelia with her to a hip-hop dance class.
While We're Young begins as a wicked send-up of hipsterism, from its undiscriminating consumption of high and low culture to its fetishization of all things analog (of which the fact that Jamie and Darby are married seems a part). The film takes a few jabs at Gen X neo-bourgeois life too — like when Cornelia tags along to a friend's nightmarish baby music class. But the generation gap themes blossom into something bigger when Jamie comes up with a video idea in which he plans to visit the first person who contacts him on Facebook, in real life.
Josh thinks of himself as a defender of nonfiction, but his purist stance is just as much a generational sign as the alarming flexibility he sees in Jamie. He asks what it means to make a documentary when everyone's filming everything anyway; after all, older documentarians, from Nanook of the North's Robert J. Flaherty to Werner Herzog, have had no trouble goosing the truth for something that feels more real. Behind all the jokes about hipster life, While We're Young has a genuinely conflicted heart — it's about the realization that young people aren't just younger versions of you, that they've grown up in different contexts with different priorities and beliefs, especially in the internet age.
Josh thinks Jamie's documentary concept is fluffy, but volunteers to come, becoming part of the discovery that there's a much larger story to be told about the guy upon whom Jamie's apparently stumbled. It's a happy accident that soon seems like it might be more calculated than Jamie's been letting on.
Which is where the Catfish comparisons come in (apart from the fact that Baumbach's partner and Frances Ha collaborator Greta Gerwig once shared an apartment with Catfish director Ariel Schulman and another friend). It's a set-up that was depicted in Frances Ha, which drew details from Gerwig's own life and featured the title character sharing a Chinatown three-bedroom with two roomies, one of them the hat-wearing Lev Shapiro — played, of course, by Adam Driver). Before it was an MTV phenomenon, Catfish was a documentary directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and centered on Nev Schulman's online romance with a Michigan woman named Megan, who, in now classic fashion, turned out to be someone's fictional creation. The film premiered at Sundance in 2010, where it received a lot of attention and plenty of praise, but was also questioned on its truthfulness. "I think you guys did a great job, but I don't think it's a documentary," a man reportedly said during the Q&A after the premiere, while journalists questioned how a trio of media-savvy New Yorkers managed to go months without Googling the person they'd been documenting.
Like Jamie, Joost and the Schulman brothers were accused of manipulating the context of their story and the way they stumbled upon their subject, reworking the side of the film they had control of so that it was more interesting, the doc equivalent of retaking selfies until you land on one you like. The Catfish filmmakers insisted their work was completely above board, but the moral of the story, and the issue While We're Young latches onto, turned out to not be whether they fabricated part of the movie, but whether anyone would care. The answer in Baumbach's movie, which was picked up by A24 for a theatrical release, is best left to be discovered when it comes out, but in real life — well, Merriam-Webster added a brand new "false social networking profile" meaning to the word "catfish" in May.