A film review by Craig J. Koban May 15, 2015


2015, R, 97 mins.


Ben Stiller as Josh  /  Adam Driver as Jamie  /  Amanda Seyfried as Darby  /  Naomi Watts as Cornelia  /  Brady Corbet as Ken

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach

I knew the precise moment when I realized that I was – the horror! – getting old.  

Years ago I woke up to excruciating lower back pain that was radiating through my legs and up my spin.  I thought I was going to need hospitalization.  Turns out – after some x-rays – that I had developed arthritis.  I was in my late thirties at the time. There’s a similar scene that occupies Noah Baumbach’s newest dramedy WHILE WE’RE YOUNG that shows fortysomething Josh (Ben Stiller) being matter-of-factly told that he has arthritis by his physician.  Predictably, he’s in a modest state of denial, but the doctor steadfastly maintains that it’s a normal occurrence for men of his "advancing" years.  

Baumbach is 44-years-old now (the same age of his main character), so you can definitely sense that the filmmaker is working through some stage of midlife crisis via his work here.  WHILE WE’RE YOUNG is a frequently hysterical and intrinsically well-observed document of the nature of how people approaching middle age deal with such alarming propositions.  When it’s not poignantly and honestly dealing with the general malaise that its aging Gen X’ers are going through, the film also examines the nature of the current hipster generation and compellingly illustrates the push-pull dynamic between young and old.  Yet, through Baumbach’s unique viewfinder, he neither takes cheap shots at his characters, nor does he let them off the hook either from his satiric crosshairs. 

Stiller’s Josh is married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and, for the most part, they live a fairly happy and content life in New York, despite being somewhat dissatisfied with their inability to have children (her infertility is a major stumbling block).  Adding tangible pressure to their marriage is the fact that Josh is a struggling documentary filmmaker that’s been working on his passion project for nearly a decade, mostly because he’s a stubborn perfectionist…but mostly because he doesn’t seem to really know what his film is trying to be about.  Nevertheless, Josh and Cornelia seem comfortable with their situation and go to great lengths to let everyone around them know – including their other married friends with children – how free and liberating life is without having a buddle of joy.   



Secretly, though, Josh and Cornelia are miserable.  The couple have a newfound spark in their lives when they meet a young twentysomething couple in the form of Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Siegfried) via one of the college courses that Josh teaches.  There’s something just energizing about the throw-caution-to-the-wind bohemian lifestyle that Jamie and Darby exist in, which is a stark contrast to Josh and Cornelia’s existence.  The couples begin a rather unlikely friendship, mostly because Jamie is a filmmaker in his own right that greatly looks up to and admires Josh’s work.  Jamie himself is working on his own pet film project, and at the height of his new friendship with Josh he asks his older pal for help assembling it.  Initially, Josh is humbled and ecstatic to help Jamie, but as events begin to unfold that hint at other ulterior and duplicitous motives behind Jamie’s film (which starts to get more attention than Josh’s won work), Josh begins to realize that all is not what it seems with Jamie. 

WHILE WE’RE YOUNG is sort of a spiritual sequel to Baumbach’s own FRANCES HA, a film that dealt with young people trying to eek out a loving in The Big Apple, but failed miserable at nearly every turn.  WHILE WE’RE YOUNG dissects both old and young generations with equal enthusiasm, highlighting the often pathetic attempts of Josh and Cornelia to recapture their youth via their new younger friends.  Even though Josh and Cornelia perceive themselves as responsible and mature adults, the intoxicating vortex of possibilities that Jamie and Darby introduce to them becomes endlessly appealing.  Josh and Cornelia aren’t completely naive fools, mind you, but there is something inherently sad about seeing them try to shrug off the effects of aging while exposing themselves to all of the youthful pursuits of Jamie and Darby. 

Baumbach is often merciless with how he pokes fun at his characters of both generations here.  He skewers hipster culture for how little personal responsibility they seem to take for anything (like, for instance, Jamie’s incessant unwillingness to pick up a check at a restaurant, leaving Josh to pay) and for the frustratingly effortless manner that they make Josh and Cornelia feel old.  There is something undeniably appealing about the young couple, though, in how they shun modern technology (they ride bicycles, make their own ice cream, listen to vinyl, play board games, and watch movies on VHS tapes), which is starkly contrasted to how Josh and Cornelia live a decidedly non-retro life of iPhones, Netflix, and constant online surfing for pleasure.  Baumbach does show fairness in portraying one specific flaw in both generations: everyone in the film seems to have entitlement issues.  Josh thinks that he deserves recognition for his years of dedication for film work, whereas Jamie feels that he should just have it immediately without the hard work. 

The cast here is wonderfully assembled and displays symbiotic chemistry throughout.  Stiller (who was ingenious playing a deeply dislikeable curmudgeon in Baumbach’s GREENBERG) is in his element playing up to his character's nagging sense of self-doubt and unease.  Watts too is engaging and credible playing his wife, having the tricky task of evoking Cornelia's headstrong vitality and vulnerability at the same time.  Driver and Seyfried perhaps have the trickier performance tasks in the film, especially Driver for the way he relays a young man that seems wide-eyed, childlike and carefree on the outside, but maintains hidden motives underneath a falsely congenial façade.  And how lovely is it to see Charles Grodin make an appearance in a small, but crucial role as Josh’s semi-estranged father.  His moments with Stiller – as he tries to dish out honest career advice, much to Josh’s increased agitation – are among the film’s more honestly rendered – and perversely funny moments. 

Baumbach makes a few errors in his third act in terms of showing the dueling war of directors between Jamie and Josh that feels a bit distracting (the sub-theme of auteur truth and integrity in documentary filmmaking seems like it belongs in a whole other film altogether).  And maybe, near the end, Baumbach also lets his Gen X'er characters off a bit too easily and paints the Millennials too harshly and broadly as selfish and uncaring opportunists that are willing to lie and cheat their way to the top.  However, WHILE WE’RE YOUNG has a grand time poking holes in its various New York subcultures and is wickedly unflinching for showing the intergenerational stresses and jealousies that develop between its well meaning, but deeply flawed characters.  In the end, the film poses an intriguing question – who’s more self-servingly conceited and hollow: Gen X'ers or Millennials?  

Of course, as a man that just turned 40…I’d have to say the Millennials.  Yet, it could be my advancing years doing the talking.    

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