Noah Baumbach has a history of making occasionally hilarious but notably divisive movies. Yet, his latest effort, While We’re Young, is easily the writer/director’s most accessible film to date while not being an entirely unexpected one. Here, Baumbach’s reunited with his Greenberg star Ben Stiller, but not in a role that casts the actor as wholeheartedly unlikeable.
While We’re Young moves with the same frenetic pace as Frances Ha, but is not the same type of art house skewing black and white picture that drove many potential viewers away. Perhaps it’s even Baumbach’s recent work as one of the screenwriters on Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted that helped him to adopt a laughs-first mentality for While We’re Young. Whatever the ingredients, Baumbach’s amalgam of influences has resulted in a movie that should immediately become his most widely embraced, even if it’s not his greatest endeavor.
While We’re Young opens on Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a couple in their 40s struggling to look after their friend’s newborn in a moment alone with the wailing child. They wanted and tried to have kids, but after a series of failed pregnancies, the couple’s stuck between the freedom childlessness allows them, and the domesticity that’s settling in with their age. That’s when Josh, a documentarian giving a lecture at a college, meets the fedora-clad Jamie (Adam Driver) and his young wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie is a young documentarian whose knowledge and appreciation for obscure culture charms the older Josh (not to mention that he’s actually seen Josh’s film!).
Josh immediately feels energized by his first double date with the young couple, whereas Cornelia is not so immediately sold. It takes Cornelia tagging along with a friend and her friend’s child to a music show for children for her to finally seek out the youthful energy that the younger, Brooklyn-based couple provides. Soon after, Naomi Watts is going to the gym with Darby and unwittingly taking part in a hip-hop dance class. It’s a rare moment where the actress breaks from her realist shell into a fully blown comedic performance, dancing with grace akin to those inflatable men outside of car dealerships. Outside of this scene, Watts allows the comedy to come naturally instead of playing things up for the camera. It’s a great but unexpected performance from the 2-time Oscar-nominated actress.
A montage nearly 30 minutes into the film that juxtaposes the older couple’s gadget-fixated existences against the younger couple’s kitschy fetishism for older entertainment like board game, VCRs and vinyl gets some of the movie’s biggest laughs. Furthermore, it’s an idea more eloquently articulated under the caring eyes of Baumbach than other comedies that have turned the word “hipster” into an interchangeable punch line. The sequence does a lot to inform audiences about all four of the film’s main characters, provides commentary on their generational divide, and still manages to be hilarious.
The closest to a revelatory performance in While We’re Young is Adam Driver’s, who despite playing a version of the callous, too cool for school hipster he became known for on Girls, is given a larger platform in While We’re Young to display his comedic sensibilities. Jamie is an easy conversationalist whose extensive knowledge of culture is fed by a seemingly genuine curiosity; however, his heartfelt side may be masking his more manipulative qualities. The way Josh’s opinion of Jamie is able to fluctuate throughout While We’re Young is a result of the layered performance given by Adam Driver, as well as Baumbach’s thoughtful script.
You do wish that Baumbach had found a way to include more of Amanda Seyfried. While We’re Young is ostensibly a Stiller vehicle, which means it’s Josh’s movie, and in the relationships established by Baumbach’s script, Seyfried sometimes ends up the odd one out of the film’s big scenes. The actress is really strong as the young bohemian in her limited scenes, but is simply given fewer character traits to explore than her co-stars.
None of which is meant as a slight against Stiller. In While We’re Young, the actor is poised to have his funniest, most appealing comedy since 2008’s Tropic Thunder. The performance doesn’t break new ground on his career the way Baumbach’s Greenberg stretched perceptions of what Stiller could craft through comedic neurosis, but Josh is still a good role for the established movie star, and a pleasant reminder of how funny he can be in the right part.
Baumbach’s film becomes dramatically flimsy as the plot becomes more incestual, but its observations on taking on responsibility as an adult, as well as its reflections on millennials, are compelling. Even when the film follows familiar paths, While We’re Young is consistently funny, and engaging in (at times) unfortunately relatable ways.