What Josh’s Alter Ego Teaches Him

Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is much more than a look at how youth wants to outdo the old. How the older envy youth. Or, how a mid-life crisis leads to all kinds of desperate shenanigans. It’s also the story of 40-something Josh (Ben Stiller) who can’t move forward for complex psychological reasons. And, of 20-something Jamie (Adam Driver) who gives us a pretty good clue about what Josh is afraid of.

Josh, a documentary filmmaker, has had some success, but nothing like his father-in-law, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin). Leslie’s famous. This makes Josh feel small in comparison. He can’t accept his father-in-law’s help or advice. Josh has to prove himself, but it just isn’t happening. It isn’t happening because he’s too afraid he isn’t good enough. His new project drags on and on. If it’s never finished, he won’t fail.

Telling Self-Lies Not To Feel

Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have had their share of disappointments. They tried to have a baby, but that didn’t happen either. Their best friends are brand new parents. Josh and Cornelia are out of the loop. They tell each other, it’s not what they want. They like being free. A baby would cramp their style. These are lies, of course. Just as much a lie as the one Josh tells himself about his film endlessly in the making. Feeling like a failure is just too much to take.

But, what is it that causes failure? Turning away from what you want.  Telling yourself you don’t really want it. Giving up. Treading water so you’re not failing or succeeding. Because you’re just too afraid that if you give it your all, it won’t happen. That’s Josh.

Facing Fears In While We’re Young

In comes, Josh’s alter ego, Jamie. He’s exactly what Josh is afraid to be. At first, Josh is enamored of Jamie’s flattery. It makes him feel like the success he’s not. He thinks he’ll mentor Jamie. But, really – he wants to be him. While We’re Young takes some hilarious twists and turns as Josh tries to do just that. That is – until the attempt falls flat on its face.

Jamie, it turns out, thinks nothing about doing anything – even lying – to get what he wants. Yes, Jamie feels entitled. He exploits help, steals; does whatever he wishes. Anything goes to get where Jamie wants to be. He takes and takes from anyone and everyone. Even Leslie Breitbart. Even Josh. Selfishly. Ruthlessly.  Callously.

The free-spirited Jamie, who we’re enamored with when the film begins, leaves a bad taste in our mouths. And, what about Josh? He’s left in a rage of hurt and betrayal and jealousy. Jamie pushes Josh aside and wins his father-in-law’s attention and respect (what Josh has been unsuccessful in doing). And, more than that gets recognition at his young 20-something age. Never mind the shady methods he used to get it.

Learning What It Takes To Get Unstuck

Let’s put Jamie’s methods and lies aside, for a moment. Josh really does need a bit more of Jamie. It’s not to be young again. It’s not just to be in the moment.  To value old things he’s forgotten. Even, to loosen up. If Josh can learn anything from Jamie’s youth and rather extreme sense of entitlement – it is to do what it takes to succeed. Get help. Be more aggressive. More certain he’ll get what he wants.

By the end of While We’re Young, Josh and Cornelia have faced their age. That time has passed, that they can’t be young again. They’re back on track doing what all their friends are doing. Doing what 40-somethings do. Doing what they were convinced they didn’t want – heading for Haiti to adopt a baby.

What about Josh’s work, though? Josh may have faced that he can’t run from where he is right now. But to pass off Jamie’s questionably achieved success by saying “he’s just young” begs the question of just who Jamie is to Josh.

If Josh realizes that his attraction to Jamie is something he needs in himself, he might be able to move on in his work. Feeling less afraid to go after what he wants would open up a missing emotional edge to his old film project or a new one. And, just maybe, get him out of the creative rut his fears of failure keep him in.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at sandracohenphd@gmail.com to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.