In Noah Baumbach’s last film, 2012’s Frances Ha, a mediocre modern dancer has to accept adulthood by giving up her warped sense of self. In While We’re Young, a middle-aged and mediocre documentarian has to accept adulthood by giving up his warped sense of self. At least Baumbach’s consistent.
B: With the exception of Woody Allen, no director delves quite so unabashedly into the white intellectual New Yorker experience as Noah Baumbach. So it makes sense that his newest protagonist is a Woody Allen-esque, twitchy and insecure documentarian named Josh (Ben Stiller at his most unlikeable).
It also follows in the grand tradition of movies/TV shows set in New York that Josh is able to afford nice clothes, expensive devices and a great apartment with his producer wife (Naomi Watts), despite not having finished a documentary in a decade. (He teaches a class, so maybe he’s an adjunct, and there’s a subplot involving his refusal to pay an editor, but for the most part, Josh seems to have few worries about maintaining his own standard of living—jazzy hats and gourmet pizza lunches included.)
Unable to have children of their own, the couple anxiously watch their good friends join the “baby cult” until they meet a young hipster couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who claim to be fans of Josh’s obscure past work. Jaime and Darby are as hipstery as hipsters could possibly be, even boasting a live rooster in their expansive warehouse apartment, which they too seem to afford by virtue of their coolness. As the older and younger couples become more entangled, Baumbach turns from satirist to moralist, and by the final act, reveals himself to be an outright nihilist. Without telling too much about the plot, my Bullshit-O-Meter definitely went off at an eleventh-hour twist, which comes off as far-fetched and convenient, even lazy, renouncing integrity itself as old-fashioned.
What do you think about the climax? And is the depiction of the young/old divide in While We’re Young effective or just reinforcing caricatures? I definitely laughed at a few moments—however, when reflecting about the film in general, I can’t help but be bothered by how these broad strokes are never balanced by fleshed-out characters. Do you think the generational divide in the film is valuable social commentary or a made-up conflict conflating personality and generation? I’ve known many millennials who are insecure and idealistic, like Josh, and quite a few Gen X-ers who are productive and egotistic people, like Jaime …
R: While We’re Young begins as an entertaining—if benign—look at the generation gap, but gradually devolves into a late ’90s sitcom, complete with overdrawn plots and wacky misunderstandings.
So, to answer your questions: no and no.
At first, it looks like this might be a different movie, thanks in part to Baumbach, one of the best “modern indie” directors around. I use the term “indie” loosely, because it’s hard to call a film that cost $10 million and stars A-list talent “independent.” “Non-blockbuster” is probably a better term, but I digress. Baumbach’s skill as a director can’t make up for While We’re Young‘s inadequacies, particularly its lack of focus.
The film is best when exploring its two central couples and how they interact. Subtle, character-based observations—like how Jamie never argues when Josh wants to pick up the check at a restaurant—represent While We’re Young at its most successful. But the characters are drawn so broadly that there’s little in the way of genuine revelation to be found. There’s no nuance, no real texture, nor any–to borrow your phrase–valuable social commentary. Naomi Watts fares better than most, but she’s arguably the best actor in the movie, so that’s not a huge surprise. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention her dance moves, which aren’t good, but are definitely entertaining in a meme-friendly way.
As the film shifts into its later frames, the characters don’t matter as much anyway. The plot takes over, and it’s a plot that has little to do with what earlier acts were about, delving into arguments about artistic license and integrity, as well as the virtues of having (or not having) children. All of it is meant to serve as an expression of Josh’s feeling that he’s lived a squandered life, but there’s no connective tissue tying that concept with the rest of the film. The result is an unsatisfying experience, especially because it eschews so much of what’s already been seen–including the portions that are actually good. Cornelia and Darby practically disappear by the end; Seyfried’s deadpan performance is especially missed.
Are Josh’s failings and neuroses the focus of While We’re Young‘s third act because Stiller is its most bankable star? If so, that feels like a miscalculation—it’s not like this movie was ever going to get a ton of box office traction anyway. I mean, it doesn’t even have a superhero in it! Though I’ve seen superhero movies with a better sense of themselves than this middling effort. Is it crazy for me to draw that comparison? Maybe it is … and maybe it is.