'While We're Young'
Noah Baumbach has been a master of caustic comedy since his debut ‘Kicking and Screaming’. (No, not the one with Will Ferrell. The other one.) He’s a man for whom laughter always comes with a bitter sting of truth and deep discomfort. That’s why it was so surprising when he made the sincere and even moving ode to twentysomething listlessness, ‘Frances Ha‘. Admittedly, the movie was laced with dark wit and melancholy, but by Baumbach’s standards it was crowd-pleasingly heartwarming. Thankfully, Baumbach has gone and set things straight with ‘While We’re Young’, a movie that viciously rips apart the same generation that he just put on a pedestal.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia, a pair of middle-aged Gen Xers who never had children and thus are starting to see their social life crumble. Things are particularly rough for Josh since his once promising career as a documentary filmmaker has stalled after spending years making a boring and failed follow-up to his previous successful feature (not to mention the fact that he’s never stopped feuding with Cornelia’s celebrated documentarian father played by the always welcome Charles Grodin).
Salvation from a life of bitter nights with dueling iPads arrives when Josh strikes up a friendship with twentysomething couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). He’s blown away by their hipster lifestyle and how they love all the trash culture and analog media formats that he once threw away to live in an Ikea palace. Soon, Josh and Cornelia are shopping in vintage stores and hanging with their new friends in all sort awkwardly hilarious ways. Josh even collaborates on a new doc with Jamie that might revitalize his career. Of course, this is still a Noah Baumbach movie, so any happy ending you might see on the horizon is just a mirage.
First and foremost, ‘While We’re Young’ is one of the funniest movies that Baumbach has ever written. Hipster mocking might be easy, but he has a way of tearing into that specific culture through the eyes of a middle-aged man desperate to be young again that’s quite fresh. Moments like Stiller marveling at Driver sincerely enjoying “Eye of the Tiger” and saying, “I remember when this song was just bad” deliver huge belly laughs that sting through uncomfortable recognition. Baumbach knows his targets well and attacks with vicious satirical intent.
Stiller and Watts are marvelous as the leads. It would have been easy for them to mug their way through buying porkpie hats and joining hip-hop dance classes, but they commit with complete sincerity and add a touch of tragedy to the comedy that’s rather wonderful. Driver and Seyfried, on the other hand, are stuck with characters who feel a little shallow. On a certain level, that seems like a deliberate choice. On another level, it feels like lazy characterization – but only by the high standards set by this movie. Driver and Seyfried are game enough in their performances that many won’t even notice.
Eventually, the film builds to an insightful and Woody Allen-approved message about the dangers of getting tied up in any generation. Through Stiller’s feud with Grodin, we see how his stubbornness to accept the generation that came before him proved to be just as shallow as his dismissal of the one that came after. That’s the thing with youth; they’ll always tear down what came before them even if it means ignoring their hard-earned lessons. It’s a clever thesis for a movie that could have easily been little more than a collection of well-observed jokes and observations.
Unfortunately, Baumbach does stumble a bit in his race to that message. While the first two thirds of the movie are driven by character, the last act doubles-down on plot to the film’s detriment and the loss of some well-earned naturalism. Granted, Baumbach knows what he’s doing, mocking and toying with narrative conventions as much as he conforms to them. Still, the final third of ‘While We’re Young’ feels slightly too calculated compared to what came before and the movie unravels ever-so-slightly as a result.
Thankfully, all that means is what had the potential of being the best Noah Baumbach movie is merely one of his best. That’s not a bad compromise. Given how sporadic the output of this cult filmmaker can be, we should all be happy to take what we can get.