A few years ago, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, who host the New York Film Festival, re-introduced secret screenings to their annual slate. The films chosen for the New York Film Festival are highly anticipated prestige films from high caliber directors and movie studios. These movies premiere months before their official release. The first secret screening was back in 1991 with Disney's Beauty & the Beast premiering two months before its official release. In 2011, Martin Scorsese's Hugo was the film at the center of the secret screening with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln following the next year in 2012. The next year, rumors swirled that the secret screening would be Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, but the film was not ready for a public viewing, so there was no secret screening in 2013. In all of these cases, the films were unfinished and a "work print" was screening for the people lucky enough to buy a ticket.
This year was a bit different. Instead of a secret screening, the New York Film Festival put on a surprise screening of "a highly anticipated 2015 release from a New York Film Festival favorite!" In this case, the rumors were correct and pointed to Noah Baumbach's latest While We're Young. And while I'm a fan of Baumbach's work, I was slightly disappointed with the selection, considering that the movie already screened at this year's Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks ago and Baumbach isn't as high caliber as a Scorsese or a Spielberg. But alas, I'm always up for a new film from Noah Baumbach.
While We're Young follows Josh & Cornelia, played by Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts, respectively, a married couple in their early 40s adjusting to all of their friends having children. They're in a middle ground in their relationship, as they are unable, yet happy to not have children in their lives. The couple is going through a midlife crisis when they meet Jamie & Darby, played by Adam Driver & Amanda Seyfried, who reinvigorate their lives Josh is a documentary filmmaker struggling to get his latest film off the ground, while Jamie is an aspiring documentarian. Josh takes Jamie under his wing, while Cornelia opts to produce Jamie's first effort. Josh emphasizes honesty and finding a story in filmmaking, which, sadly, Noah Baumbach lacks in While We're Young.
Honestly, the film is lousy. It's too highbrow for board comedy, while its comedy firmly tries to sit with general audiences. While We're Young sounds interesting on paper, a middle-aged couple find new life and excitement via a younger and hipper one, but in execution, something is lacking when one of its biggest set pieces involve spiritual vomiting into big plastic buckets. The film lacks the kind of honesty Josh's character tries to ingrain into young Jamie, as While We're Young comes off as phony with broad generalizations and comical stereotypes about youth and young urban Bohemian culture (IE hipster culture).
The performances in While We're Young are fine. Ben Stiller has made a career out of playing fumbling, well meaning guys, while Noami Watts and Amanda Seyfried, shockingly, don't have enough to do in the movie. Adam Driver plays the same arrogant and selfish hipster-type that he plays in almost everything he agrees to be in, but still can't capture that same feeling or interest that he gives his characters on HBO's Girls and Frances Ha. The big standout in While We're Young is Adam Horovitz (AKA Ad-Rock from Beastie Boys). Horovitz should consider taking more acting jobs because he's really the only honest and charismatic character in the whole film. Well, there is Charles Grodin, who is always a delight to watch on the big screen.
While We're Young takes a sharp shift when the film stops exploring themes of aging and youth culture, and takes a new direction into documentary filmmaking. Both sides of the film feels very unsatisfying, while we leave the theater thinking that we didn't learn much about any of these characters on the big screen, despite spending more than 90 minutes with them. It seems that all that fun energy and excitement from Noah Baumbach's previous film Frances Ha didn't cross the East River into While We're Young. It's almost shocking that the same director who made Kicking & Screaming, a movie that celebrated youth culture, made While We're Young, a movie that mocks it.