Getting old happens far quicker than one might think. The biggest song on the radio is suddenly by someone you’ve never heard of, even though the artist has been popular for a year or two. The movie you find to be a mild guilty pleasure is seen by the youth as a classic, no irony or camp viewed in it whatsoever. Late nights are gladly exchanged for watching last night’s episode of “The Daily Show” before hopping into bed around 10p.m.
Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young gets this feeling; the good and the bad of it. The latest by one of the great voices of American cinema features a relatively happy married couple played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. Stiller plays Josh, a respected documentary filmmaker who teaches classes on such things, even as he struggles to make, let alone fund, his latest endeavor. Watts is his wife Cornelia, the daughter of an even more well-renowned documentarian. Their lives are content and quiet, with evenings usually full of reading on a tablet or perusing Netflix. The pair’s best friends have a new baby and do as new parents do; won’t shut up about it. This isn’t innately bad. It is a subject that Josh and Cornelia aren’t overly fond of, having struggled to have kids in the past and since giving up on the idea.
Along comes a young person. His name is Jamie (the always terrific Adam Driver) and he’s brimming with passion. A fan of Josh’s older works, including the ones he had to seek out on eBay to view, he and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) befriend our married duo. Suddenly, Josh and Cornelia are hip to what the kids are into; fedoras, vinyl, not Facebook. Jamie and Darby are even able to playfully say “F*ck you” to one another. Bonds seem to grow and Jamie begins asking Josh for help on making his own docs, which will eventually lead to some life changing situations for all four characters.
Baumbach’s style has never been showy. Writing all of his own films, with the occasional co-writer, a Baumbach picture is wordy, often containing long conversations between people that tend to be barely likable. Of course, while most people are at their hearts good, they are additionally prone to being cruel or judgmental in accepting company. While We’re Young is on the warmer side of the man’s filmography, if not the warmest. If Margot at the Wedding was the point where Baumbach ran with lead characters that are sour with their lives and those around them, While We’re Young is kind of the opposite. Josh is perhaps a tad sour with how life hasn’t entirely bloomed as he hoped. He doesn’t take it out on those around him, slowly trying to be more open to other ideas. It may not always benefit him, nor does he love the notion of it, but Josh is growing.
As usual, the dialogue is terrific. Baumbach’s script is witty, with each character getting his or her own voice. At one point, Josh is at Jamie’s place and “All Night Long (All Night)” from Lionel Richie is playing and the elder of the two simply states, “I remember when this song was just supposed to be bad.”
The cast is good, with Watts effortlessly bringing a magnetic presence. In the wrong hands, her character could be played a tad too tightly and dip into a shrewish stereotype. Thankfully, the writing and her performance keeps it on the right side. Driver is sensational, a man of passion and ideas that isn’t above being devious to get to where he wants in life. Just because he has a big goofy smile, rides a bike all over the city and watches films on VHS doesn’t mean he lacks motivation or manipulation. In the most vital role, Stiller is fine. He sells a lot of the material perfectly, bringing some of the same low-key vibes he did to Greenberg. On occasion, particularly in the last act that doesn’t hang together ideally anyways, some of Stiller’s larger mannerisms pop out, using the bug eyes and flappy hands. A big scene at a gala has several highs, yet doesn’t come together as cleanly as the rest of the narrative, Stiller a tad too arch for the moment.
So much of what makes While We’re Young good is Baumbach’s ability to recognize the hypocrisy of it all. Josh gets annoyed about Twitter, but is rather fond of Facebook. Josh views Jamie as a tad too selfish and ponders if it’s due to his youth, yet we also witnesses a new father state that his own well-being takes precedent over his baby’s. There are rants about how documentaries today, with everything being filmed at all times, allows for more manipulation to the truth, yet earlier in the movie Josh has a class about the often faked and revered doc Nanook of the North. As it was, as it shall remain.
While We’re Young doesn’t have the vicious bite of The Squid and the Whale or the tight character focus of Greenberg or Frances Ha. Still, it’s an entertaining time and full of its fair share of laughs, insight and memorable elements.