The vantage point of middle age is delightfully cruel, affording a clear view of the generation of hotshots coming up on the rail from behind and the generation of long-distance thoroughbreds five lengths ahead. The opportunities for angst are limitless.
This is the comic perspective—justifiable paranoia, creative class division—providing the material for writer-director Noah Baumbach’s zesty tale of two marriages, While We’re Young, the filmmaker’s fifth worthwhile (or better) comedy in a row.
Think about that. Five in a row. That’s quite a streak. Some are more daring than others; While We’re Young may be the most conventional of Baumbach’s successes, as well the first one with a distinct and somewhat deflating drop-off point near the end. Yet Baumbach belongs in a select group of invaluable American directors. He makes movies built, increasingly, like traditionally structured studio comedies of an earlier age. He delivers, in other words, without redelivering the same thing over and over.
Like his previous film, Frances Ha, While We’re Young has a warmer tone than the movies that got him noticed. Following Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach got down to business and up to speed with The Squid and the Whale, a painfully amusing and brilliantly acted fictionalization of his own divorce-addled teen years. Then came two inspired comedies widely considered too harsh for human consumption, Margot at the Wedding and, with Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig, the Los Angeles lament Greenberg. They’re his bravest so far, my favorites; their nerve is stunning.
While We’re Young is more easygoing, yet the recriminations and resentments are everywhere. Stiller plays Josh Srebnick, an obsessive documentary filmmaker who has been tinkering with his latest grandiose indictment of the human condition for a decade. He’s married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts). The relationship hasn’t ended up in a ditch, but it is stuck in neutral, clouded by past miscarriages and Josh’s insular, competitive nature.
Then they meet Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), two decades their junior. They are Brooklyn bohemia incarnate. Jamie is an aspiring filmmaker, Darby makes fancy homemade ice cream and their lives are living, morphing testaments to doing whatever comes naturally. Their retro-chic traits include watching VHS versions of The Howling and tending to their egg-laying, loft-dwelling chickens. Ingratiating himself with Josh, whom he soon nicknames “Yosh” and “Joshie,” Jamie becomes his friend, protégé, hipster-hat adviser and, eventually, collaborator on Josh’s freewheeling and ethically dubious documentary project.
“They’re so respectful of us!” Josh says to a skeptical Cornelia early on, plainly flattered at the attention.
The friendship isn’t quite what it seems in While We’re Young. As we learn the true nature of Jamie, Baumbach indulges himself in a little too much “You kids get offa my lawn!” finger-wagging. The movie opens with an extended passage of dialogue from Ibsen’s The Master Builder, in which the protagonist, an aging star architect threatened by the younger generation, wonders how much to trust the upstarts.
While We’re Young becomes a stimulatingly two-faced experience, with Josh learning to let go and open up and collaborate, a little bit, while also learning that getting a hipster replacement doesn’t help in the long run. For better or worse, the movie contends, in the end, that you really can’t trust these kids today.
Driver may be too right for the role of Jamie; chalk it up to overexposure, or certain tics and limitations as an actor, but he tips his hand too early, I think, regarding the character’s ulterior motives. All the same, he’s a swell scene partner for Stiller, Watts and Seyfried, who transcend familiar New York stereotypes to become interesting screen company on their own terms. Maria Dizzia (a terrific talent, lately seen on Orange Is the New Black) and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz are wonderful as Josh and Cornelia’s friends, new parents whose lives have been upended.
There’s an element of Paul Mazursky in Baumbach’s work, especially in the scene where Jamie and Darby take Josh and Cornelia to a cultlike retreat for emotional purging, the ingesting of hallucinogens and some realizations that take us through to the end of the picture.
It’s not a long picture (97 minutes), though Baumbach struggles to activate the later sequences wrapping up the plot and getting Josh and Cornelia to a better place. Along the way, there are some sharp interactions and rich moments within scenes. Josh, dealing with garden-variety middle-age maladies, goes to the doctor and finds out he has arthritis. “You mean arthritis arthritis?” he asks. Reply: “Yes. I usually just say it once.”
As Cornelia’s revered documentary filmmaker father, a crusty truth-teller in the Frederick Wiseman mold, Charles Grodin provides a master class in minimalism. The brief first scene between Josh and his father-in-law tells us all we need to know about Josh’s envy, insecurity and wariness, and more obliquely, what he’s up against with Grodin’s character. You don’t know whether to laugh, wince, cry or all three, and even in a witty breeze of a film such as While We’re Young, the needles stick.
While We’re Young (R): ★★★✩✩