While We’re Young
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried
“Enough about ethics, what about me?”
This line in Noah Baumbach’s latest movie comes toward the end, when the middle-aged documentary filmmaker played by Ben Stiller, reaches the end of an annoyingly grandiose diatribe against every other character in the movie and their perceived moral betrayals. It’s delivered, as much of the rest of the movie is, somewhere between satire and sincerity. That’s to say, While We’re Young is much more of a return to form for Baumbach than the joyous outburst of his last film, 2013’s Frances Ha.
While We’re Young is Baumbach’s sometimes sharp, sometimes eye-roll-inducing look at generational gaps and overlaps. Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are in their 40s, have no kids and are very defensive about it. They’re losing their friends to parenthood, so when Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried, a young couple in one of his film classes, they go on a double date and he and his wife quickly latch onto them.
Each couple feels like an archetype in a romantic comedy; Josh and Cornelia are the water treading sad sacks, and Jamie and Darby are the Manic Pixie Dreams Girls who are going to make everything fun for them again. They do this by introducing spontaneity into their lives and appropriating other cultures. It’s not long after their meeting before Josh is wearing a fedora, Cornelia is taking a hip hop dance class and they tag along with the millennials to a drug and vomit-fueled sadness-purging ceremony. They become alienated from their more “grown up” friends and eventually find themselves ensnared in Jamie’s plot to use them to get ahead in his own documentary career.
A big thing the movie has going for it, at least at first, is that Baumbach looks past the played-out desperation of the mid-life crisis storyline and initially engages with the positive aspects of the bond between the two couples. However, his attempt to give Jamie and Darby a fair shake slips by the end, and Josh transforms into an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. One of Baumbach’s gifts as a director is in portraying personal relationships as slowly boiling kettles, but that doesn’t work here. The movie’s big confrontation scene between Jamie and Josh is pompous and feels like something a bloviating Aaron Sorkin Great Man would say if they were more self-conscious.
Another of Baumbach’s strengths is in picking at his characters’ emotional scabs in brutally funny ways, which often works very well with his set-up here. Josh and Cornelia’s anxiety is almost always front and center, and he embeds the audience in it by focusing on the performers’ wide, nervous eyes. Cornelia goes to a baby music class with her other middle-aged friends and their infants, and the quick succession of close-ups between her, the moms and the musicians turn the whole event hilariously horrifying; she runs out of the room practically screaming.
Josh, being the director’s on-screen avatar, gets the brunt of the torment. Stiller gives the character’s many “Wow, maybe these millennials actually think I’m cool” moments a tinge of self-loathing. Him, Seyfried and Driver all walk almost perfect performative lines that prevent their characters from being mocking caricatures. Watt’s character, and by extension, her performance, seem to be in a much different movie, though. Outside of a couple affecting close-ups, her character is used mostly to flesh out Josh’s emotional state.
While We’re Young feels confused in the context of Frances Ha, which was an enthusiastic, contagious portrayal of twenty-something female friendship in New York. This movie feels much blander by comparison, and seems too exhausted by the end to tie up all of the conflicts it introduces. The last 20 minutes oversimplify everything that preceded it; the sad sacks suddenly learn the true meaning of life and love, and move on from their fling with the pesky younger generation.