Directed and written by Noah Baumbach. Produced by Scott Rudin and Noah Baumbach. Release date: March 27, 2015 (April 17, 2015 expansion).
In the world of independent cinema, writer-director Noah Baumbach is one of the more prominent voices, having established his own sense of style, both thematically and technically, in the two decades he’s been working – although most would argue he’s really come into his own in the last ten years. With While We’re Young, he brings us an observational comedy about middle-aged adults and young adults – actual young adults, not whatever fiction writers believe “young adults” to be – that eventually becomes something about the ethics and morals of documentary filmmaking, and art in general.
No, you didn’t misread that. A movie that begins by pointing out how cool its young, hipster couple is turns into something much different. It’s a big change, and while it’s hard to tell exactly when in While We’re Young it occurs, it definitely feels like we conclude with a different film than the one with which we began. I liked the first movie better. It’s more fun watching Baumbach muse on the generational differences than hearing him try to figure out how much truth documentaries need in order to be, well, documentaries.
While We’re Young follows Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), a middle-aged couple who struggle to get along with their friends, who all seem to be having children and moving to a different stage in their lives. Josh has been working on the same documentary for close to a decade now. He gives lectures at the local college, which is where he meets Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a younger couple whom he instantly befriends. This allows the film – and subsequently Baumbach – to make clever observations about the differences between the couples.
This goes on for a while before tensions between seemingly everyone start to rise, and the film no longer becomes about the friendship that’s formed between the two couples. Instead, it becomes about jealousy, resentment, and about different ways to create art. The transition happens organically – you don’t notice it’s happened until after we’re already there – but While We’re Young winds up a completely different film from where it began.
To steal a labored and meaningless sports cliché, “it is what it is” sums up a lot of While We’re Young‘s points.
Part of the reason you don’t notice the transition is because the observational comedy – and really the comedy in general – is strong throughout. This is probably Baumbach’s funniest film, which means that you’re going to be laughing enough that you’ll ignore its change in direction. The cast is also quite strong. Ben Stiller, who re-teams with his Greenberg director, shines in a more dramatic role than usual. Adam Driver fits perfectly into the puzzle as a quirky hipster. Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried are good but ultimately don’t get as much to do as their male counterparts. Charles Grodin shows up for a few scenes and is wonderful, too.
None of the characters are particularly likable, so if that’s a problem for you, there you go. Baumbach doesn’t usually go for “easy” when it comes to his characters. He makes them more “realistic,” and that often means they’re difficult to get along with. A realistic approach also means that what he ultimately has to say on his subjects isn’t a whole lot. To steal a labored and meaningless sports cliché, “it is what it is” sums up a lot of While We’re Young‘s points. Youth? It is what it is. The older generation? It is what it is. Documentarians who tell the truth 100% of the time? They are what they are. Documentarians who don’t? They are what they are. Nobody’s wrong and nobody’s right; they just are, and that’s okay. That can be frustrating at times to watch.
Is While We’re Young for everyone? No, it isn’t. If you liked Frances Ha or The Squid and the Whale, chances are you’re going to like this, too. Had it remained the film it began – an observational comedy about different generations coming together – then it would have been an easier pill for the general public to swallow. As it is? It’s still a very funny movie with strong acting. It’s just a bit muddled, and ultimately doesn’t have as much to say as it wished it did. Or maybe it does, and it says all that Baumbach thinks it should.
Bottom Line: I liked the movie that Baumbach started out making more than the one he ended up with, but it’s still quite funny and has great acting, making it an enjoyable watch.
Recommendation: Fans of Noah Baumbach or any of the four principle actors will want to check out While We’re Young. For everyone else? It’ll be a “your mileage may vary” situation.[rating=3.5]