Though well-acted and capably directed, the heavy-handedness of Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young makes it one of his lesser efforts. Baumbach tries to anticipate the impending clash between Gen X bitterness and Millennial entitlement, but the execution feels uncomfortably (Zach) Braff-ish. You’ll probably leave the theater smiling, but we’ve come to expect something a little more substantial from an observant filmmaker like Baumbach.
John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” For Josh (Ben Stiller), a 43-year-old director who’s been slaving over the same documentary film project for 10 years, a promising career and happy marriage have been derailed by his obsessive attention to detail. He’s kind of like Kubrick… only without the results. His wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), has her own issues, namely her unwillingness to have children after a series of tragic miscarriages in her thirties. Coming on the heels of Baumbach’s richly-drawn heroine in the triumphant Frances Ha, the superficiality of Cornelia’s character is jarring. The family storyline is so perfunctory, in fact, that all of the epiphanies (and there are lots of surgically-executed epiphanies) feel precious and cloying.
Enter Jamie (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried).
Jaime is everything that Josh is not. He’s young, hip, spontaneous, generous, and, most importantly, he’s willing to cut a few corners to realize his own directorial ambitions. Josh falls in love with him immediately. “My name sounds so much better when you say it!” he gushes to Jamie. Like Cornelia, Darby’s character exists only to be exasperated by her man. She may share the same unmerited confidence as Jamie, but she’s little more than a cog in his well-oiled machine. In fact, Darby and Cornelia are merely the collateral damage left in the wake of Josh and Jamie’s career machinations.
What Baumbach has always done so well, from The Squid and the Whale to Frances Ha, is allowing his stories the space to grow organically. The rhythms and tones work in concert with our growing awareness of what really makes the characters tick. His filmmaking is deliberate and delicate; themes and ideas reveal themselves in subtle details and strategic imagery.
Here, Baumbach has a lot on his mind and he can’t wait to share it with you. Characters say exactly what they’re thinking, usually in the most straightforward manner possible. This disintegration of subtext quickly plunges things into melodrama, while the broad comedy gags give it a weird mainstream tone that clashes with the premise’s inherent quirkiness. People getting wacky on drugs and puking into buckets doesn’t exactly lend itself to soulful exploration. More than anything he’s done to date, While We’re Young feels like Baumbach is holding our hand. His eagerness to please gives everything a sanitized comfort that saps the story’s emotional strength.
In fact, the first hour of While We’re Young contains almost no conflict whatsoever. Jamie and Josh cultivate their bromance while Cornelia and Darby putter in the background. There are musings about massive record collections and chickens kept as house pets. It’s all wonderfully eccentric. Suddenly, as if realizing how badly things are dragging, Baumbach kicks the plot into high gear with an outlandish plot twist normally reserved for farcical comedies, not indie dramedies.
It’s also the type of twist that happens when a filmmaker crams too much into one story. Short cuts are taken and plot incongruities are overlooked. For instance, if Josh must learn to embrace life instead of sweating the details, why punish him when he actually makes a spontaneous decision? If Jamie is such a smooth-talking, ultra-confident operator, why does he fluster so easily under duress? And why did it take so long for these intelligent humanists to consider adoption? This type of sloppiness is very distracting, particularly from a careful filmmaker like Baumbach.
Stiller is good in the lead role, but he’s played this character many times before. Indeed, While We’re Young has a definite Walter Mitty vibe. Watts struggles as the disgruntled mommy wannabe and faces the added insult of having to do some pretty embarrassing stuff along the way (i.e. dancing). Unfortunately, Adam Driver, one of the most interesting young actors working today, is largely squandered in order to preserve the mystery surrounding his character. It’s a tragic choice that prevents Stiller and Driver from butting heads and elevating the material.
What’s going to happen when disgruntled Gen X’ers who played by the rules are pushed aside in favor of mollycoddled Millennials? That seems to be the question that Baumbach wants to tackle in While We’re Young. Sadly, the messages are just too diluted to offer any meaningful conclusions. It’s frustrating that this instantly forgettable feel-good movie could have been so much more.
— J.R. Kinnard