I was not sure, walking into While We’re Young, if this was a film that I should see with my parents so that they could complain about the young or watch with my college friends so they could complain about the old. Turns out, it’s both. And neither at the same time.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s newest film takes a crack at generational differences in modern times, the crisis of middle age, the value of authenticity in art, the definition of success and a life well lived, impenetrable intellectualism versus popular appeal, and the pros and cons of South American hallucinogens. Sounds like a lot? Don’t worry. Baumbach keeps the movie focused on our main characters and moving at a fast clip throughout, delicately slipping in brief detours before yanking us back into the main narrative. Unfortunately, while definitely an enjoyable ride, While We’re Young never quite matures enough to resolve all the issues it raises.
The story drops us directly into the life of Josh (Ben Stiller), a didn’t-really-make-it documentarian who’s been struggling for ten years to finish an over-intellectualized mess of a film about, well, everything. The fact that his father-in-law Leslie (Charles Grodin) is a hugely successful documentary filmmaker doesn’t help Josh’s latent sense of failure. He and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) enjoy their comfortable, childless middle-aged existence, watching with vague horror and perhaps a bit of jealousy as their friends have babies, complimenting each other on their personal freedom while falling into the routine of everyday life. This bland domesticity turns upside down when Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a picture-perfect bohemian hipster couple sitting in on one of his community college classes.
A young filmmaker, Jamie claims to admire Josh’s documentary work, quickly casting himself in the roll of protege, ambassador of youth, decrier of modernity, collector of records, wearer of hats. Darby makes, of course, specialty ice cream from alternative milks, reads paperbacks of Russian lit, and keeps fit through vigorously well-choreographed hip hop routines. Josh and Cornelia promptly find themselves wrapped into Jamie and Darby’s lives, setting aside their baby-ridden friends to attend a street beach day party replete with scantily-clad teenagers and alternative life choices, consuming ayahuasca in an effort to expand their minds (as opposed to an effort to desperately hold onto some veneer of their youth), and helping Jamie film a small vapid documentary project that all of the sudden turns out to have more potential than anything Josh has accomplished in years. Not only that, but Cornelia starts producing the film and Leslie begins to support it.
You would think that the tension between Josh’s past failures and Jamie’s developing success would elevate While We’re Young to a new level, but instead the film starts to fall flat in this second half. Where Baumbach keeps us wonderfully entertained in the front part of the film with his subtle observations, revealing snapshots of the two couples’ different living habits or pointing out the absurdity of hyper-intellectualism through enough theoretical babble to make any English PhD candidate proud, the story begins to feel forced. In place of the organic elasticity of life that Baumbach showcases so well, the narrative now plods from one expected plot point to the next, full of diatribes about truth in fiction, the emotional vibrancy of the young, and whether you can truly change yourself as you age. Also children and whether you should have them. And the sacrifices needed to be a success. And what it means to be a success. Like I said, there’s a lot.
Josh’s observations sound more like Baumbach talking directly to the audience than an authentic character, and they speak louder than anyone else in the main quartet. Darby disappears within the murmur of Josh’s philosophic and personal introspection, Cornelia loses any sort of agency as she’s never given the chance to make an active choice between Jamie and Josh, and Jamie becomes pretty much a stand-in for everything that Josh dislikes and everything that Josh wishes he could be. Instead of forcing us to choose a side, or at least presenting sides coherently, While We’re Young seems to flit from one concept to another, cherry-picking the idea that most supports the moment before disregarding it and pushing forward a different one. Nothing gets resolved and, almost worse than that, a number of problematic things get swept under the rug or tacitly approved of as the film draws to a close (I’m looking at you specifically, Darby and Jamie’s relationship).
For all of those issues, While We’re Young still entertains. Some of the shots are truly beautiful and the score compliments the film incredibly well. Ben Stiller delivers a surprisingly strong performance, building his humor out of a very real character. Adam Driver engages as a solid representative of the hipster generation before slipping into a single note at the end of the film. Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried are not given nearly enough to work with, perhaps the most shameful part of the film considering how lauded Baumbach was for his portrayal of women in Frances Ha, but they still shine when they’ve got the chance.
The film may not answer all of the questions it raises or do full justice to the hodgepodge of themes it manages to squeeze into the story, but Baumbach puts together a vibrant narrative that celebrates the wisdom and hardheadedness of age alongside the joys and follies of youth. In an industry that so often fetishizes the young, maybe that’s answer enough.