By Kyle G. King. In Noah Baumbach’s 2010 Greenberg, Ben Stiller’s titular character suffers — among a myriad of other inner conflicts — a tremendous maladjustment to the latest generation of 20-somethings. While that did prove to be a fruit worth plucking for a comedy of discomfort, a lot of Stiller’s potential was put into a box and mostly forgotten due to Greenberg’s more tragedy-centric exposition. This year Baumbach and Stiller return with While We’re Young, a film that allows its generational satire to cut far more deeply in order to expose a less compromised funny bone.
Written and directed by Baumbach (auteur that he is), While We’re Young tracks the lives of Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) as a pair of 40-somethings who persistently fail to mirror the vast number of younger, hipper intellectuals that plague New York City. Childless and content, they avoid the idea that having kids is the next step in their life, telling their oldest friends and new proud parents Fletcher and Marina (played by Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia), “Maybe the point is that we have the freedom, and what we do with it isn’t important.” Josh’s pointed dialogue displays Baumbach’s unmatched style of sharp and punchline-less comedy while smartly alluding towards the conflict to come. Not only does Josh lack romantic momentum, Josh also struggles professionally as a documentary filmmaker. Spinning his wheels on his latest filmic statement on “power in America” — on top of forty other things — for over a decade, he finds himself with too much footage (some might say metaphysical experience) and not enough spunk (or maybe youthful vigor) to finally get the film cut.
Working part-time teaching a class on filmmaking, Josh meets another couple, the younger twenty-five year-old Jamie and Darby (played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). When Jamie — an aspiring documentarian himself — expresses admiration for Josh’s past work Josh is truly charmed, as he regards his career thus far as relatively underappreciated and unsuccessful. Josh is eager to feed off the energy and ego-boosts that come from the younger Jamie, while Jamie seems content innocently bouncing around ideas off another filmmaker. What follows is a simmering character study between different generations of white, upper-middle class, liberal creatives (with respect, Baumbach’s storytelling domain).
Baumbach turns a wisened forty-six this year, and while his age makes the story of While We’re Young relatable, Baumbach makes Driver and Seyfried — capable, charismatic actors — work with what are basically polished Portlandia character tropes. What could easily manifest as ninety-seven minutes of a cantankerous old man’s account of “the stupid things kids are doing these days”, that’s thankfully never materialized. Instead, While We’re Young flaunts a millennial counterculture that appropriates VHS tapes and vinyl records: the yesteryear tastes taken for granted by the Generation X that simultaneously struggles to understand tattoos and what trendy hats to wear these days. Each group shops in the abandoned storefront of what they think the other regards as cool.
Beyond Baumbach’s astute storytelling, what sharpens While We’re Young are the consistent, understated performances by its central cast. Stiller is perfect as a squirming, restless forty-something wedged between two generations fraught with boiling insecurities, while Watt’s range (and gross underappreciation) seems to know no bounds as she organically builds a rich chemistry between her Cornelia and Stiller’s Josh. Adam Horovitz (yes, that Adam Horovitz) fits in seamlessly in several select scenes as an oasis of serenity in a film constantly in flux (and he provides a well-delivered, brilliant bit about modern day parenting). Charles Grodin is another refreshing face as Cornelia’s acclaimed filmmaker father Leslie, whose approval Josh and Jamie both — in their own personal ways — are desperate for.
The climax is where While We’re Young loses its beautifully built momentum with an off-balance turn, one that focuses more on an ill-fitting conspiracy theory rather than the obvious betrayals of the film’s self-serving male leads. Instead of drawing on the well-built satirical parallels between Josh and Jamie, what plays out is a confrontation served for Stiller to showcase his well-known capacity to rant uncomfortably. This third act floundering also exposes a giant hole for any further female development, as Cornelia amounts to little more than a tool to be used by her father and husband, while Darby simply directs Josh where to go for the climax. (For a more powerful female perspective, please see Baumbach’s Frances Ha.)
To speak bluntly, Noah Baumbach remains one my favorite writer-directors working today and While We’re Young is a natural progression for an aging filmmaker growing more comfortable with the mature subject matter he chooses to tackle. It’s unfortunate his gifted, unifying vision didn’t blend well enough overall, but as a filmmaker in general he is indeed capable of putting on consistent work at a higher caliber. Such flourishes should afford him a little privilege to try things out as he might see fit. That forgiving leeway is the ultimate exchange of respect between artist and audience.