Noah Baumbach is a director who tends to run hot or cold for me. I have not seen all of his filmography, having missed out on his mid-2000s works The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. Kicking and Screaming, considered to be a 90s classic, did nothing for me; Greenberg genuinely annoyed me. However, Frances Ha was one of my favorite films of 2013. Baumbach has been compared to Woody Allen, another director who also runs hot and cold for me. While We’re Young is Baumbach’s follow-up to Frances Ha and falls closer to it on the love/hate spectrum for me than his other films.
Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, respectively) are New York couple in their early 40s who are beginning to feel age catching up to them. Their closest friends Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) have just had a baby, which reminds them of how they decided to give up on children several years ago after a few miscarriages. Josh is a documentary filmmaker and Cornelia produces documentary films of her father, legendary filmmaker Leslie Breitbart. Josh and Cornelia, in a sort of mid-life crisis, finds their lifestyle upended when they befriend a young twentysomething couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried).
Baumbach strikes an amusing balance of this weird, in-between stage that Josh and Cornelia find themselves in as they start to act younger than they really are, trying (and somewhat failing) to look, feel, and act in the cool, carless, hipster manner that Jamie and Darby seem to pull off so easily. There is a clear sense from both of them of trying to fend off time and taking the step into the next phase of their lives, and the arrival in their lives of this younger couple is a welcome escape. The allure of youth is always more appealing, but it is also fleeting, and it is for the young. Josh is drawn to Jamie, who is an aspiring documentarian himself, and comes to see himself as a friend/mentor to Jamie. Hilariously, Josh tries to pull off the younger lifestyle, but just isn’t in a place in his life to keep up with Jamie; whether it’s knee tendonitis preventing him from riding his bicycle down the street with no hands, or being just a bit too old to pull off the hipster hat look. Likewise, Cornelia looks incredibly awkward and out-of-place next to Darby and others when she joins Darby for a hip-hop dance workout session.
The acting across the board is well done. Stiller and Watts have a great, lived-in chemistry together. You believe them as a couple. And their desire to be younger than they are comes across as less desperate than explorative. Adam Driver continues to impress as a young actor who fits right in with Stiller and Watts in and even old pro Grodin. Seyfried is fine, but feels like she is the least developed of the four main characters, almost feeling like a necessary piece of Driver’s character.
Baumbach offers a few sly social observations throughout the film. There is an interesting montage contrasting the hipster/youth culture repurposing everything that the older generations have abandoned (VHS tapes, records, paperback books) by trying to keep up with the trendy items that are intended for youth (streaming content services, iPods, and Kindles). The opening of the film is humorously relatable as Stiller and Watts watch a baby and try to remember how a kids story goes, confusing Three Little Pigs with This Little Piggy. There is also a sequence involving Watts attending a baby fun class with her friends, sans baby, that plays out like a scene from a horror film about the infantilization of new mothers. There is also a prolonged scene of Stiller and Watts attending a retreat where they try some hallucinogenic drug that is supposed to help you purge your fears, and induce vomiting that is also quite funny. While these observations are funny and there is a lot to like about the film, at times it feels a little slight, like the there isn’t that much commentary behind the observations it is making through the generational contrasts on display.
There are warning signs for Josh and Cornelia that the allure of Jamie and Darby’s life is not all it is cracked up to be and may in fact be disingenuous. Baumbach twice makes a point of showing Jamie and Darby not paying for a meal when Josh and Cornelia go out to dinner with them, instead busying themselves with their phones or some other distraction with the hope/expectation that Josh will just say “I’ve got it” before it gets awkward at the table. And when Josh offers to help with Jamie’s documentary, the façade begins to crumble even further as Josh sees inconsistencies and things that bring up questions about creative integrity. This is mined for good humor too, as Josh has been laboring over a documentary for eight long years that is Byzantine and incoherent and he is reluctant to excise anything from its 5 hour runtime. Josh’s artistic integrity begins to come into conflict with what he sees as Jamie playing fast and loose with what Josh sees as the rules of documentary filmmaking and begins to wonder if he is being manipulated. Just how disingenuous Jamie and Darby really are or whether it is just Josh and Cornelia choosing to turn a blind eye initially is open to interpretation.
But the main narrative conflict is that Josh and Cornelia are at a place in their lives where they feel out-of-place with people their own age and with people younger than them. And because of that, the film is about their journey to get to the point where they can accept where they are and who they are, come to grips with closing a chapter of their lives, and look ahead to the next chapter of their life. While We’re Young gets a lot of its laughs from the generational contrasts on display throughout the film. I can see the comparisons to Woody Allen as Noah Baumbach offers unique insights on life and a unique look a New York as well.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars