Droll, observant, bittersweet, and unexpectedly sympathetic, While We’re Young is a delicious satirical drama about hipsters and their discontents; a routine middle-age sitcom for over-educated urbanites; and an excruciatingly pleasurable and wince-inducing study in insecurity. It’s an easygoing Sunday afternoon at the movies.
As their other friends all start having children, Josh (Ben Stiller, Greenberg) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts, Birdman), a New York married couple in their mid-forties, gravitate toward a young hipster couple named Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). He’s an aspiring documentary filmmaker, a vocation in which Josh has already had marginal success. Josh and Cornelia begin enjoying the energy they feel hanging out with the younger generation, but eventually Josh suspects his new best friend might not be as straightforward and trustworthy as he thought.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach is something of an indie legend: he has a great sense of the ridiculous, a sensitive instinct for keeping the attack under control, and an evil genius for casting (as Cornelia’s revered documentary filmmaker father, Charles Grodin is masterfully minimalist as a crusty truth-teller in the Frederick Wiseman mold). Although it’s certainly his loosest, most playful, and most broadly appealing, While We’re Young vaulted over my dire predictions of what would constitute a “mainstream” Baumbach film.
Baumbach judiciously calibrates fantasy and realism and winds up sharing insights about parenthood, friendship, ambition, and aging that audience members have likely harboured at one point or another, whether they will admit it or not. Baumbach borrows – notably from Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors – yet what is off limits to steal when everything is available? Only an artist at the midpoint between maypole and maturity could concoct a comedy as efficacious as While We’re Young.
While the script is cunning, While We’re Young is also unusually generous towards its characters for a Baumbach film. That kindness must be a byproduct of getting older. There are areas which feel soft and compromised, where Baumbach’s vision seems to desert him and the searing self-examination so present in The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha all but disappear. Still, he brings a light touch and a forgiving gloss to the self-consciousness. If this is Baumbach’s commercial breakthrough, he will have made it several steps up that staircase with little lost.
Blisteringly of-the-moment and classically zany in the same breath, this stinging Gen-X midlife meltdown is a 90-minute hit of confident comedic commentary; an open-hearted, quick-witted take on intergenerational tension and jealousy and old problems in new times; and a poignant, well-etched social comedy with strong viewpoints about the elastic nature of honesty and compromise. Deriving much of its humour from a series of moments of “meshing” between the couples, it’s at its best when examining how each person is looking for something from the other that they refuse to articulate for fear of recognizing the weakness or flaw in themselves.
In addition to making fun of the hyper-articulate intelligentsia – the Big Apple denizen subculture – While We’re Young skewers attempts to stave off the malaise of aging by clinging to people who radiate the exotic promise of youth. It’s a knotty exploration of the dialectic between sincerity and authenticity, the shifting relationship between truth and fiction, using comedy to make insightful comments about relationships and society (for the pinnacle example, see The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and exploring how hopes, ambitions, personal dreams, and creative ideals ebb and flow across decades.
While We’re Young is prone to more missteps than we’re accustomed to from Baumbach: it’s strained in its plot, and it might have been more entertaining if one didn’t feel the urge to strangle the hero. It loses its grip a little in the third act, when Baumbach gives Stiller too much babbling and ranting. The denouement is unsatisfying, making viewers question the film as a cheap shot or blanket condemnation that paints Xers as guardians of integrity and millennials as greedy opportunists, but it’s redeemed by a coda that assures the right amount of happiness for everyone.
While We’re Young is not Baumbach’s best film by a long shot (it’s more like a collection of greatest hits), but it’s his easiest to embrace by the same distance. As Baumbach can attest, time drags you kicking and screaming over the inevitable finish line. One may as well laugh on the way there.