Baumbach's cross-generational comedy is at first a delight, but a sour third act ruins the fun.
While We’re Young
It’s a dreadful feeling to know, deep down, that you’re not where you should be in life. It’s a feeling that can strike at any age, really, but Noah Baumbach‘s generational comedy While We’re Young aligns itself with the middle-aged set with which the Brooklyn-bred director associates. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a New York couple in their mid-40s who glom onto a young hipster couple in their twenties (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) as a way of redefining and rejuvenating their relationship and finding their place in the world. It’s a witty, funny, sharply composed film about mid-life restlessness and paranoia that unfortunately takes a sour turn in its third act, which is so hostile and caustic it ends things on an unpleasantly dour note.
Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts) live in a gray domestic malaise, living in comfort in their cozy New York apartment. Comfort; not contentment. While most couples their age, like their buddies Fletcher and Melina (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia, respectively), repurpose their lives by having a baby, thereby solving any identity crisis they might have (or at least distract themselves from it). Josh and Cornelia are still undecided on whether they want to have kids or not, but a random friendship they strike up with Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried), a vibrant pair of young lovebirds, sucks them into a world of hipster cool that makes them excited about living life again.
Josh and Cornelia’s silly attempts to acclimate to millennial culture is the main source of humor, and being that Baumbach is a mid-lifer living in New York, he’s clearly got a grip on what’s funny about people in their 40s trying to act like their younger friends. Whether it’s Cornelia practicing moves she learned at a hip-hop dance class or Josh pulling a back muscle while riding bikes with Jamie, the jokes are all hilarious and presented sneakily enough by Baumbach that they don’t appear as broad gags (even though, really, that’s exactly what they are). When Josh starts wearing an ill-fitting fedora to mimic his buddy Jamie, it makes for a running visual gag that echoes Stiller’s quick turn as “Tom Crooze”, Tom Cruise’s loser stunt double, in a sketch they did at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards. Driver looks like a slick Brooklynite wearing a cool hat; Stiller looks like a clown.
What’s also funny is Baumbach’s spot-on portrayal of hipster culture. Jamie and Darby love to run through abandoned tunnels at night, make artisanal ice cream, throw summer block parties, and listen to Lionel Richie on vinyl. Their phony adoption of vintage things and forced eschewing of all technology hints at the major conflict on the horizon. Jamie is an aspiring documentary filmmaker, which is how he connects with Josh, who’s a more experienced (struggling) documentarian himself. When we discover the real reason Jamie befriended ol’ “Joshie”, his true nature is revealed and the movie becomes something of a curmudgeon, presenting the young characters as entitled pests.
In the film’s easygoing first two-thirds, Stiller seems to be struggling to fight off the manic, fidgety mode of acting he’s so comfortable in. When the Jamie revelation comes, however, Stiller reverts back to the panicked, fidgety actor we’re all so familiar with, and it’s for the worst. Josh’s arc is an interesting one, in which he learns to let go of his competitive, jealous nature and be at ease with himself, but Stiller is so agitating on-screen that it’s a little too easy to stop caring about him. Driver’s character isn’t likable either, so all we’re left with are the two female counterparts, both of whom aren’t afforded nearly enough time. By the end of While We’re Young, there’s an overriding feeling of apathy for the characters. It’s a shame, because in the first half of the movie we learn to like them, but after the shit hits the fan, our affection for them never returns.
Driver’s lanky physique and dopey charm is perfect for the role of Jamie. There are some nice, subtle details to the character Baumbach throws in, like how Jamie sometimes ends some sentences with “see?”, like someone from a vintage gangster movie. Watts and Seyfried are terrific, but unfortunately fade into the background as the plot becomes progressively more fixated on Stiller. Charles Grodin is pitch-perfect as Cornelia’s gruff, revered documentarian father, whose success is a point of envy and rage for Josh, ever the insulated starving artist.
Surprisingly, the breakout star of the film is Horovitz, whose measured, even-keeled performance is the polar opposite of the wild-man Ad-Rock persona he flaunted for so many years in the Beastie Boys. (Stiller, on the other hand, loses his composure as the film goes on.) He’s shockingly good, and the prospect of him working with Baumbach again (or with anyone for that matter) excites me. While We’re Young is a mostly breezy movie that’s mostly very enjoyable and would have been great save for the uneven drama that emerges near the end making the film more of a downer than it needed to be.