The title of Noah Baumbach’s latest film, While We’re Young, obliquely suggests a call to action. What is it that we’re invited to do or partake in while we’re young? At the same time it suggests regret for opportunities passed by or tasks left unfinished. Baumbach’s recent films all center around characters who are trapped in ruts: of misanthropic selfishness (Greenberg) or of adolescent limbo (Frances Ha). While We’re Young is on the surface about the rut of middle age and our cultural infatuation with youth and novelty. But it’s also about how one might break out of those ruts and how when the whole world feels like it’s against you, it can be helpful to take a step back and take a good look at oneself rather than others.
If that sounds like fairly heavy subject matter, on the contrary, Baumbach’s film is one of his slightest and has a mostly light touch, playing as a straightforward comedy for much of its runtime. Its late act turn toward introspection complements the story arc of its main character. That’s a risky proposition which could lead to a fairly uncharitable reading of the film’s attitude toward youth and immaturity. But, in Baumbach’s films, it has always been a challenge to parse what the main characters are saying versus what the film is saying; this is a distinction worth keeping in mind.
While We’re Young stars Ben Stiller as Josh Srebnick, a documentary filmmaker in New York City, and Naomi Watts as his wife, Cornelia. They are a childless couple in their early-forties, and the first shots of the film are of Josh and Cornelia staring uncomprehendingly at their friends’ new baby as they struggle to remember the story of the “Three Little Pigs”. The idea that Josh and Cornelia are out of touch with this staple of childhood storytelling is highly ironic, given that they are both in the storytelling business. Josh, the documentary filmmaker, has been toiling on his latest project for nearly a decade as it balloons out of control in terms of subject matter (long treatises on Turkish politics) and length (over six hours long). Cornelia works as a producer for her father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a documentary filmmaker himself in the vein of Wiseman or Pennebaker. They live a comfortable life, but we get a sense that both of them are unfulfilled.
Something is going to kick them out of their rut and that something is Jamie, played by Adam Driver, and his wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who attend one of Josh’s continuing learning film classes. When they express admiration for Josh’s one hit documentary from over a decade ago and invite him out for drinks with them, Josh quickly becomes enamoured of this 25 year old couple who are living the ultimate Brooklyn hipster life. It turns out that Jamie is an aspiring filmmaker himself looking for Josh’s help. The twin draw of a lost youth and the veneration Jamie bestows on him proves too much for Josh to resist. Soon he and Cornelia find themselves spending most of their free time with the younger couple, joining them for street beach parties and exploring shaman-led ayahuasca ceremonies, eschewing their long time, more mature friends.
In one sense the film’s premise relies on a lot of easy gags that feature the clearly out of his element Josh trying his best to fit in with the hipster kids nearly 20 years his juniors. Ben Stiller is able to bring some of his clueless comic timing to the role here, almost expunging the sour taste of his performance as the titular character in Greenberg. Cornelia joins Darby at her hip-hop dance classes, leading to some funny scenes of Naomi Watts gesticulating awkwardly. But as Josh begins helping Jamie on his newest documentary project, the film’s humour and plot starts to turn more on Josh’s internal insecurities about his own art.
There is something somewhat pathetic about seeing Josh so enamoured of Jamie’s effortless “authenticity”—he and Darby watch old VHS tapes on movie night and bicycle around the city. Josh amusingly embraces the narrow-brim hat that Jamie selects for him. But what’s even more sad is seeing Josh’s inability to see the ways in which he is paralyzed in his own past, unable to find his way out of his film project and resentful of his father-in-law’s success. If the future belongs to the young, then all we have is our own past and what we’ve accomplished. Josh is unable to take pride in that.
The film resolves itself when Josh’s infatuation with Jamie is punctured by Jamie’s less than rigorous adherence to the truth of documentary filmmaking as Josh sees it. Ironically, it is Josh’s father-in-law, the even older generation of filmmaker who has words of wisdom for Josh. Grodin embodies the sage old man, almost a continuation of the character he plays on Louis C.K.’s television show, gruff but warm. Josh needs to see that his anger is at himself and the decisions he’s made, and find a way to resolve that. The film concludes on what could be seen as a dig at youth and young energy with Josh and Cornelia embracing a kind of bourgeois inevitability; however, instead of this being a failure for the characters, the film sees it as them making choices to be more true to what they always wanted rather than trying to be something they’re not. Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz a.k.a. Ad-Rock as Josh’s newly paternal friend gives him a speech reminding him that it’s not always easy being a parent despite how much one loves and dotes on one’s baby. The same might be said of any kind of hard work.
While We’re Young is probably the least alienating of Baumbach’s films thus far. Its jokey tone in the early stretches and the broader performances from Stiller and Watts seem slightly at odds with some of the film’s thematic preoccupations. Still, the choices might have a greater purpose, as the film itself seems to suggest that a sign of maturity is not taking it all so seriously. Has Baumbach gone soft?
Ultimately, I’m not sure all of While We’re Young works. It’s a bit too slight to really sell Josh’s change of heart, and while I want to believe the end of the film isn’t as harsh on Jamie and the twenty-something hipsters as Josh is, there’s something a bit “kids these days” about it. But Baumbach gets some nice performances out of both his leads and the supporting characters. Stiller does good work, Charles Grodin takes another step in a late-career resurgence, and Adam Driver is continually funny and charming. For the second film in a row, after the wonderful Frances Ha, Baumbach seems to have a genuine compassion for his characters and it makes all the difference.
7 out of 10
While We’re Young (USA, 2015)
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach; starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horovitz, Maria Dizzia.