Writer-director Noah Baumbach, who’s in his mid-40s, last made Frances Ha, an affectionate film about a woman flailing through her late 20s, with his girlfriend, actress and co-writer Greta Gerwig, who was in her late 20s at the time. If Frances Ha was Baumbach’s very successful attempt at remembering the excitement and uncertainty of his younger years, then his new film is a witty report on where he is now—or, at least, the people he sees around him.
While We’re Young stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as Josh and Cornelia, a 40-something married couple living in New York City. Cornelia produces her revered father’s documentaries—the father is played by the stellar Charles Grodin—while Josh is a once-promising documentarian who has spent a decade on his latest project, which might finally get done in about a decade from now. (Late in While We’re Young, Cornelia admits that one of the reasons she fell in love with Josh is that she saw a lot of her dad in him. One wonders if she was mistaken in that initial impression.)
Childless but relatively content—a couple miscarriages have convinced them that parenthood wasn’t in their future—Josh and Cornelia find their staid domestic lives interrupted by meeting Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who are almost the perfect representation of 20-something hipsters. A free-spirited married couple who love kitschy cultural detritus like Rocky III with utter sincerity, Jamie and Darby have an enthusiasm for new restaurants, trends and enlightenment movements that shakes Josh and Cornelia from their doldrums. (Plus, Jamie, an aspiring documentarian, knows and adores Josh’s older work, becoming the sort of admiring protégé Josh has always secretly wanted.)
The first half of While We’re Young, which Baumbach wrote solo, is just about comedic perfection. Mostly skewering Josh and Cornelia’s life of urban privilege, the filmmaker seems to be imagining what happens to all the Frances Halladays if they stick it out in New York, find jobs and mates, and discover that adulthood is just a series of bitter compromises. The impossibly romantic spirit of Baumbach’s last film, with its nods to the French New Wave and ’80s New Wave music, has morphed into a deceptively accessible and mainstream comedy in which the main characters are painfully aware how static and not-young they are.
But While We’re Young cuts deeper than that. Though focused on Josh, who’s consumed with disappointment that he’s not a bigger success, the film views its two generations of characters with equal amusement. If Josh and Cornelia are struggling with the choices they’ve made, Jamie and Darby are grappling with the moment when they have to stop imagining a future and start reaching for it. From Josh’s perspective, Jamie is so lucky, his life stretching out in front of him. As they become friends, Josh tries to be a mentor, but really he just wants to go back to being young, when he had potential and promise rather than just being a middle-aged disappointment. (At the same time, Cornelia starts palling around with Darby because she makes the older woman feel vibrant and sexy—as opposed to all her other female friends who are busy raising their kids and officially becoming grownups.)
While We’re Young gets such mileage out of that transition from “young” to “old”—as well as that realization that your life’s plan isn’t like the plan your friends are following—that it’s a little disappointing that Baumbach eventually decides to throw a plot into the mix. Frustrated that he can’t finish his film—partly because he’s scared to commit to a direction on it—Josh starts helping Jamie with his project, in which the young filmmaker will seek out every high school friend who “friends” him on Facebook, wanting to learn about their lives away from social media. Josh, who tends to be ungenerous and defensive, is initially skeptical of the documentary’s merits, but soon Jamie unearths some incredible revelations about one old friend (Brady Corbet), who was once the coolest guy in school but is now in a mental ward after what he experienced as a soldier in Iraq.
Things aren’t that simple with Jamie’s film, though, and eventually While We’re Young stops being a terrific social satire and instead turns into a twisty mystery. The filmmaker’s reasoning is sound—the insecure, competitive Josh can’t quite believe Jamie’s out-of-the-gate luck with his first documentary and wants to prove that something’s fishy—but it derails both the humor and sharpness of the story Baumbach has been telling. Rather than enriching his themes, the plot muddies them. With that said, though, While We’re Young’s eventual resolution circles back to what’s best about the film: its nervous laughter over our perpetual need to compare ourselves to others, envying those around us who seem happier or more confident or more put-together than we are. Too often, Josh (and a lot of us) look at these issues through the prism of aging when, really, it extends beyond that. Baumbach draws a lot of humor from the greener grass we’re always eyeing.
This is Stiller’s second film with Baumbach after his excellent turn in Greenberg, and although Josh isn’t as caustic as that character, they’re both men ensnared by their pride and anger, envisioning themselves as more important than they turned out to be. Stiller has a knack for such twitchy, failed individuals, and he wrings Josh’s hang-ups for plentiful laughs. As for Driver, who also appeared in Frances Ha, he successfully transforms Jamie into a comically nightmarish vision of that supremely confident, serenely unflappable younger guy we all know, a thorn in the side of our faltering self-esteem. If the performance weren’t so painfully true, it wouldn’t be so damn funny.
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Brady Corbet
Release Date: Screening at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.