While We’re Young
Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Ben Stiller (Josh), Naomi Watts (Cornelia), Adam Driver (Jamie), Amanda Seyfried (Darby), Charles Grodin (Leslie Breitbart), Maria Dizzia (Marina), Adam Horovitz (Fletcher), Brady Corbet (Kent), Matthew Maher (Tim), Peter Yarrow (Ira Mandelstam), Dree Hemingway (Tipper), Ryan Serhant (Hedge Fund Dave), Peter Bogdanovich (Speaker).
The films of Noah Baumbach have always been very hard on its characters – sometimes, perhaps, a little too hard, especially since Baumbach is making comedies. His characters are flawed, and unlike many American Indie films, Baumbach’s films don’t let their characters off the hook – they are a collection of narcissistic, self-involved, navel gazing, pathetic jerks in many ways, but they are ones that Baumbach at least seems to understand, and even like – perhaps because many of his films have roots in autobiography (likely including this one as well). At his best – like The Squid and the Whale (2005) – Baumbach makes a film that is both insightful, funny and painful. It’s a tricky tone, one he doesn’t always pull off for the entire movie – and While We’re Young is a perfect example of that. The first hour is classic Baumbach –a little lighter and breezier than most of his stuff, but still filled with the same insight. The final 30 minutes or so takes a darker, more cynical twist, which perhaps would have worked better had Baumbach changed the tone of the movie a little bit to match its new found cynicism, instead of trying to keep things bobbing along with the same comic spirit. There is still a lot to love about While We’re Young, but if Baumbach had stuck the landing better, he may have made one of the year’s best, instead of just a really good comedy.
Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are a childless, married couple in their mid-40s, who are somewhat drifting. All their friends have kids, and have drifted away from them into the “cult of parenting”. Josh is a documentary filmmaker, who has been working on the same film “about power in America” for nearly a decade, most of it centered on an intellectual that Josh admits is kind of boring. Cornelia works for her father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin) – a famous documentarian in the Frederick Wiseman/Maysles Brother vein – and even though Josh and Leslie should get along, they basically hate each other. Josh and Cornelia are basically in a rut – that is until they meet Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). In their mid-20s, but married, Jamie is a documentary filmmaker himself – and professes to love Josh’s work (he made to buy a VHS copy of it from eBay, but whatever). He runs her own artisanal ice cream business – and, of course, they live in Brooklyn. Jamie and Darby re-energize Josh and Cornelia, in scenes that scenes that are both comic, and more than a little sad. Josh and Cornelia don’t realize just how pathetic they can look, trying too hard to recapture their youth that has slipped away. But Baumbach doesn’t mock these two characters – at least not entirely. He makes it clear just why these two may want to go back and start again in their mid-20s, in revelations that are sad, without being overly manipulative.
The movie gets its plot from a documentary project Jamie is working on. He has finally given in and got himself a Facebook page, and his plan is to make a documentary about him going to interact with the first person who he no longer knows in real life who wants to be his Facebook friend. It sounds like a lark – but as the project takes shape, it becomes something deeper and perhaps even great. But to Josh, it all sounds perhaps a little too good to be true.
Stiller and Watts are great in the movie. It would have been easy to make fun of their characters for wanting to go back in time to their 20s, but Stiller and Watts don’t do that. The play the movie straight, which at times may have been a challenge, as Baumbach sometimes strays a little too far into obvious comic set pieces (like a retreat, led by a shaman, that turns into a vomitorium). They make these two into real people, who simply want to escape from themselves for a little while – and in Jamie and Darby, they see versions of their younger selves – something the younger couple make easier by being “into” all things retro – like VHS tapes and board games, and everything else from Josh and Cornelia’s youth. Seyfried and especially Driver are very good as the younger couple as well. Driver has shown time and again how charming and comedic he can be, without looking like he’s trying at all, and he does so again here. This time, though, that charm is masking a shallowness – and even a cruelty that neither Josh nor the audience see coming (it’s the cause of the last act twist, that never quite feels real). The younger couple isn’t as well defined as the Josh and Cornelia however – they live in the older couple’s idealized view until reality comes crashing down – and to a certain extent, Baumbach is guilty is being a cranky old man yelling at the entire younger generation (to give Baumbach credit, he does acknowledge this in the movie itself) but it mainly works.
The last act is an opportunity missed in many ways. After a movie spent not quite realizing why Josh and his father in law hate each other, the movie gives a reason, without exploring it in any way, which is a shame given that it doesn’t give Charles Grodin enough to do (and if Grodin wants to browbeat Stiller on screen, than the fact that Stiller starred in the awful The Heartbreak Kid remake, the original of which was Grodin’s finest hour, then so be it). It also goes perhaps a little hard on Jamie – given then information we see anyway. Had Baumbach decided to really dig into these multi-generational divides, he may have had something great. Instead, he goes for a couple of cheap laughs – like Stiller on rollerblades.
Still, While We’re Young works remarkably well for most its runtime. There is a darkness to this film that for much of its runtime is masked by the comedic tone, but it subtly merciless the more you think about it. The film, like last year’s Listen Up Philip by Alex Ross Perry, is very much in the old school, Woody Allen vein – while at the same time being more self-aware than Allen’s films, more critical and less forgiving than Allen normally is. The more I think about While We’re Young, the harsher its critique really is. That Baumbach is able to do that, while making what is essentially a light and breezy movie is an accomplishment. Had he stuck the landing, it would have been even better – but most directors can’t even get this far.