Age is wasted on the old, especially when they want to be young again. When Noah Baumbach’s hit-and-miss comedy of urbane humiliation catches up with Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), they are stuck dead in middle age nowhere without a road map. A long-married couple doubting their comfortable but deadened relationship, they emphatically reassure themselves of their contentment. They don’t need kids to be happy, they tell each other, saying they are free to jet off to Europe at a moment’s notice. Well, probably not that soon. Maybe a month.
They’re so stuck, in other words, that when a gangly-cool pair of twenty-somethings drop into their lives, it’s as though the old folks have found a new religion. Josh is a documentary filmmaker with one real credit who’s been burrowing through a mountain of disconnected footage for almost a decade searching for a theme. So when striving filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver) shows up in the film class that Josh teaches and professes to be a huge fan, Josh falls in love. Cornelia can’t help herself, either, though Baumbach moves on quickly from her concerns.
Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) live in some converted industrial space, make artisanal ice cream, use typewriters, and listen to ’80s records on vinyl. They live surrounded by all the things we threw away, Josh says in wonderment to his more complacently middle-aged friend (Adam Horovitz). In record time, Josh and Cornelia go from being the kind of couple that says they’re up “past our bedtime” without irony to following Jamie and Darby out on a spot-on, montage-worthy sprawl of Brooklyn hipster outings. It’s a new lease on life, Josh says, at a time when he felt the only emotions he had left were “wistful and disdainful.”
Except for the fact that he talks Josh into buying the kind of working-too-hard fedora that should only ever be worn by card-carrying members of the Rat Pack, Jamie initially comes off as not the worst influence. He’s a more self-aware kind of scene-maker, perhaps, than the semi-feral character Driver plays on Girls, but possessed of the same infectious and spontaneously regenerating spark. But Jamie has a cannier side to him. Watch his ability to always be saying the right thing, keeping a careful eye on who else is around, and finding excuses to film even when nothing is really happening. Baumbach isn’t actually giving the self-centered and creatively dead-ended Josh a new lease on life. He’s setting Josh up for a pratfall that’s going to take an entire film to get to.
Since this isn’t just a Baumbach film, but a Ben Stiller film, While We’re Young is stocked full of moments where Josh is made the (usually unwitting) butt of the joke. It’s not enough for Breitbart, his legendary documentarian of a father-in-law (Charles Grodin, acting here like a chorus of the gods) to tell Josh what a pile of garbage his film is, Josh must also screw up a PowerPoint presentation for his class.
Eventually, Baumbach pivots the film from a dry and funny-enough comedy of manners to a broader investigation of not just the gulf between the generations (burnt-out slackerdom that can’t decide if it’s cynical or just exhausted versus boundless and judgment-free millennial enthusiasm) but the creative impulse. Not surprisingly, that’s too heavy a load for this slight chassis to bear.
Baumbach’s last film, the gossamer-thin Frances Ha, wasn’t any more substantial a construction. But it was floated by Greta Gerwig’s half-cocked clowning and a uniform fizziness. This time out, Baumbach seems to be throwing together bits from different films: the dyspepsia of Greenberg, the cool-kid posing of Frances Ha, the analytic humor of Kicking and Screaming. Much of it works just fine by itself. But by the time Josh lights the match for his last self-immolating embarrassment, the film has spent so much energy on mockery that it proves difficult to assign him a soul worth caring for in the final act.