Why Noah Baumbach’s Attack on “Bohemian” Brooklyn in ‘While We’re Young’ Cuts So Deep


Watching Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, I was struck by a scene where Ben Stiller and Adam Driver take a fedora-clad stroll down Troutman, a street in Bushwick now known as an incubator for Eggs Benedict and a welcome mat for street-art guided tours. It wasn’t the scene itself that snapped me to attention, but rather the absurd critical pregnancy of a restaurant they pass, that’s just in the background. Watching them amble by the recently opened Montana’s Trail House (the name of the spot is not explicit in the film), I recalled perhaps the most disproportionately scathing review I’ve read of anything — ever.

People have given friendlier, less hysterical reviews to mass murders than New York Observer critic Joshua David Stein gave to the restaurant in an infuriated attempt to call Brooklyn down-hominess on its bullshit: “Montana’s Trail House is a very bad place,” wrote Stein in his zero-star review. “Its rottenness is both inherent and cosmetic; it is culinarily insipid and morally insidious. It’s bad to the last splinter of its Kentucky wood.” He makes Montana’s Trailhouse, in its perpetuation of a boring, ubiquitous form of appropriative pastiche, out to be the quintessence of evil. Stein gets so inflamed in his critique as to then completely condescend to — and even seem revolted by — the residents of the region he tries to heroically defend… in a restaurant review:

One need not be from Appalachia to object to the fetishization of that impoverished region for the blithe consumption of faux Brooklyn frontiersmen and women. The miserable condition of Appalachia, a region that runs from New York to Mississippi, is as raw a wound and as deep a shame as a decapitated strip-mined peak. Poor, poor and damned poor are the mountain people who still live there.

Thinking about the scene where Stiller and Driver walk past this restaurant that incited so much critical hot air — in this neighborhood that’s incited the same, in this borough that’s incited even more — it became clear that the passersby (Josh and Jamie) have a relationship that mirrors that of Stein and the malevolent purveyor of biscuits.

After Ben Stiller’s character, Josh, gets over his blinding attraction to the lifestyle Adam Driver’s Jamie represents, of indiscriminate fetish for obsolescence — a lifestyle founded on a neo-Luddite notion that the old is authentic, so long as it’s convenient and aesthetically pleasing, and the new is deceptive — he sets out on a hysterical quest to debunk it. Josh aims his ire at the false framework of Jamie’s documentary, which depicts a contrived and manipulative act of restructuring as a matter of happenstance.

While his critique is entirely substantiated, both in action-based facts and in the more abstract notion that Jamie is a horrible person, the lengths Josh goes to in order to prove the invalidity of his youthful foe make him seem flailingly out of touch with what matters: his marriage (to Naomi Watts’ Cornelia, who experiences a less hysterical form of what Josh is going through) and his own filmmaking. Why is it that this pervasive aspect of Brooklyn youth culture inflames people to the point of digression, buffoonery, or even prejudice? You could say that in going to the accusatory, even slightly ageist places Baumbach reaches late in the film, the director does the same — but he luckily answers that last question more thoroughly than most other Brooklyn-centric film and TV makers have.

Baumbach’s film has two ways of differentiating between the two couples at its center. First, there’s their alluringly wide age gap. And then, more sharply, there’s the polarized relationships to authenticity that the age gap elicits. (Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey noted the “spot-on contrast between the way the analog/digital split has reversed itself, with the younger couple enjoying their VHS tapes and typewriters and vinyl.”) It’s fitting that Brooklyn — and particularly Bushwick, with its loft-dwelling chickens — is portrayed as the breeding ground for an antique-authenticity fetishism that so often seems wholly decorative in its relationship to the fundamentals of urban life. Baumbach seems to position the borough’s identity as the (relatively) new playground for the young, white, and clandestinely wealthy as a representation of the death of a certain type of documentarian truth.

In the most recent wave of Brooklyn-centric films and television shows, the borough is romanticized as a place of sweetly gritty youthful oblivion for the navel-gazing and downwardly mobile. Even in Girls, which no one still would argue paints a flattering picture of the mid-20s, Brooklyn culture has its allure. Similarly, Noah Baumbach’s last film, Frances Ha, in which he seemed enamored by youthful professional and emotional tribulations (embodied by his then-newish girlfriend Greta Gerwig), displayed Brooklyn in a fuzzy black and white that couldn’t be taken for anything but romantic. Obvious Child presents it as the best place to fall for someone while having their abortion. But these films all centered around young characters: as While We’re Young proved, it took a shift of focus to middle-aged characters to give a truly biting, satirical perspective to young people’s lives in Brooklyn.

Like an urban restaurant whose wood was plucked from an abandoned Appalachian barn, Jamie’s rejection of technology is actually a front for a new opportunism. He is a theme-park caricature of authenticity, who quickly shows he has all the bells and whistles (in his case, these could be literal objects) of someone who seeks heightened realness, but who is actually just compensating for his falsehood. His documentary is founded on a lie, as is his relationship with Josh.

But just as Josh is afraid his age will make him disappear, the younger Jamie is likely afraid he’ll never appear at all. It’s possible that his smarmy personality has something to do with what is most inauthentic about contemporary Brooklyn: it masquerades as a bohemia, as a place where burgeoning artists can come together and develop. In reality, though, increasingly competitive pricing — the pricing that’s already been driving artists out for upwards of a decade — can necessitate careerism over artistic integrity. To rise out of obscurity, young people here (the ones who are paying their own bills, at least) often have to abandon their ideals of authenticity, if not the decorative flourishes that meaninglessly signify them.

Brooklyn, as While We’re Young envisions it, becomes the place where residents — not just young, not just old — go to absurd and ridiculous lengths to prove to themselves that they won’t disappear. It makes sense: the “new wave” of Brooklynites actually refers to a generation of gentrifiers; this lifestyle is one founded on the uprooting and further (literal) marginalizing of another. This “bohemia,” it’s widely known, marks the pricing out of many Brooklyn neighborhoods’ immigrant populations. Kara Walker created a visual metaphor for wealthy, white Americans’ history of exploiting less privileged groups with A Subtlety, filling the Domino Sugar factory with sculptural emblems of the dreadful historic roots of America’s contemporary mistreatment of the working class and people of color. She adorned this particular space with this image, knowing full well that the whole thing would soon be demolished — erased — to make way for luxury, waterfront condominiums.

While We’re Young could, and perhaps should have, further sharpened its satire by exploring these political implications more visibly. But though they’re not central in the film, they are a presence. Both Josh’s and Jamie’s respective documentaries are about America’s systemic abandonment of the working class. It is not their own Brooklyn existence that is to blame, per se, but rather the sick system of real estate competition that similarly spurs their silly survival instincts and leads to selfishness and competition. After so much film and TV romantically depicting youthful Brooklyn malaise, it was about time a film came along and wholly de-romanticized it, mining the reasons it became something of a failed bohemia, bedecked in empty signifiers of authenticity that incite such critical fury from those who also participate in it — a fury that’s exaggerated as a way of asserting the existence of one’s own voice in a sea of competing creative voices.