While We’re Young
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
At age 45, it feels like writer-director Noah Baumbach is getting soft. Best known for his caustic tragicomedies like Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, and Margot at the Wedding, he took a turn in tone for his 2012 feature Frances Ha, which starred and was co-written by Greta Gerwig. So, though the warmth of that film might surprise someone familiar with his work, that it’s a collaboration with Gerwig explains at least part of that tone. While We’re Young, though, Baumbach’s newest film which premiered at TIFF this year and made a surprise appearance at the New York Film Festival, manages to carry that affection. It’s hard to top Frances Ha, but his newest is pleasant and impressive all the same.
Middle-aged couple Josh (Ben Stiller, Baumbach alum from Greenberg) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have quietly reached a point in their lives and marriage where they are, for lack of a better term, annoyed at it. They’re far from the unhappily married couple archetype that often finds itself in films about age, marriage, generational differences, etc., but they could be doing better in terms of intimacy and comfortability. He, a documentary filmmaker who has been working on his latest film for the last decade, and she, his wife, are restless. They befriend one of Josh’s students, Jamie (Adam Driver, Baumbach alum from Frances Ha) and his girlfriend, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), and, unsurprisingly, the older couple uses the younger couple to kind of live vicariously through them.
Baumbach just kind of throws stuff at the wall in While We’re Young to see what sticks, and while much of it just slides off, the film is not without its merits. On the contrary, its examination of two generations restless in their own skin, waiting for something to happen is quite touching. Its premise is not wholly original, but nor does it need to be. Baumbach seems to put originality on the side in favor of using stories whose general structure and trajectory are familiar and imbuing them with his singular touch. You could call it The Baumbach Touch.
Though While We’re Young is more generous and kind to its characters than the director has been in the past, there’s still a layer of bite to it. Josh’s stagnant production of his documentary is juxtaposed against the wunderkind Jamie and his doc coming to fruition, and we’re supposed to think that Josh is both a) silly for having spent so much time of a doc that isn’t finished, and b) petty for eventually holding Jamie’s success against him. Meanwhile, Josh and Cornelia’s tensions never rise to the surface in such an explosive way like something in Before Midnight, but the resentment is there, manifesting itself as one projecting that the other is closer to their younger avatar. It’s very subtle and expertly executed, the cast and Baumbach achieving this winningly.
What is noticeable about While We’re Young is that the dialogue, though incredibly hilarious, isn’t as idiosyncratic as Baumbach’s past work. His work is usually notable for how affected and stylistic his word choice and syntax is, often deadpan (“Yup, I was there when Serge Gainsbourg died.”), but While We’re Young sounds kind of pedestrian in its style. It’s no less sharp than Baumbach has been, nor any less acute, just less overt.
The cast, though, is incredibly winning, with Ben Stiller inexplicably able to add nuance to a character which, at first, seems very one note and ridiculous. But the gestures he makes and the mannerisms he displays become crucial to adding pathos to his character, as with the rest of Baumbach’s filmography. It’s all in the movement. It’s also nice to see Naomi Watts in a real comedic role (not counting David O. Russell’s I <3 Huckabees or Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, since she was given so little comedy to actually do). She bounces and dances and flails, and it’s wonderful seeing that kind of energy brought to the screen from an actress more associated with serious roles. Adam Driver’s Jamie, the embodiment of a hipster, seems to be an extension of Lev, his character from Frances Ha, except poorer. There’s that same “Don’t mind me, I’m just trying to get your attention” cockiness to Jamie, and he’s perfectly aware of that. The false dichotomy of “The Me Generation” against whatever generation Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are in is kind of funnily deconstructed in the film. Everyone is just as self-involved and self-aggrandizing as the next person, and yet both groups have inherent prejudices against the other, one deciding to co-opt and appropriate the other’s stuff, and one scoffing at how techno-infatuated and narcissistic the other is. And Baumbach manages to avoid any “get off my lawn” kind of finger-wagging.
Underneath the polish of While We’re Young is a similarly winsome, sweet film. It has its caustic moments, but, with age, Baumbach has grown more introspective. He’s gotten better at analyzing generations and their frustrations at work and love and life. It’s messy beneath its polish,and rightly so. It admirably, sarcastically, bafflingly, lovingly says, “Kids these days.”
– Kyle Turner