Silver Screen: While We’re Young ****
Noah Baumbach’s characters don’t have to wait for midlife crises. They can have a crisis anytime.
In Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach’s stellar 1995 debut, an insular group of college friends are paralyzed with fear over confronting life outside of academia. Frances of 2012’s Frances Ha can’t tell if giving up on her dream of being a professional dancer is capitulation or self-actualization. The title character of 2010’s Greenberg is deep into his thirties before he realizes he’s so thoroughly armored himself with cynicism that he’s distanced himself from meaningful experience.
Baumbach is a savvy chronicler of the Age of Anxiety. His movies are among the most intimate, personal comedies of the last two decades, yet their concerns are, if not quite universal, broader and more empathetic than those of his often self-obsessed characters.
In While We’re Young he’s uncovered a new niche of existential disarray. Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are a married couple in their early forties who’ve ignored the fact that their horizons are slowly collapsing. Most of their friends have procreated and given themselves over to another alien life. Josh and Cornelia have chosen, half by procrastination and half by fertility default, not to have a child, and now the increasingly short path ahead of them is uncharted and unmanned.
So it’s a breath of fresh air when documentarian Josh strikes up an unlikely friendship with Jamie (Adam Driver), one of his film students. Jamie is young, effusive, and intellectually curious. He’s a genial hipster cliché in an almost bracingly honest relationship with his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who makes artisanal ice cream and cheerleads Jamie’s artistic endeavors.
Josh is smitten by their worldliness, their confidence, their reverence for the retro culture he loves coupled with their ability to shake off the confines that come with it. Jamie has all the vinyl records Josh long ago swapped out for CDs. “They don’t make any distinctions between high and low,” he gushes, describing to his wife how they can watch a classic film one night and Goonies the next. “Goonies is a great film?” she skeptically replies.
Even Cornelia is eventually beguiled by the young couple. She joins Darby for a hip-hop dance class. Josh dons a hat. The foursome heads upstate for an Ayahuasca group-trip led by a petty shaman. All the while they drift further apart from their best friends (Maria Dizzia and the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz), whose lives have been taken over by their infant daughter.
Plotting was never Baumbach’s strength, and While We’re Young does spin its wheels a bit when the movie threatens to be upended by a big twist involving a documentary Josh is helping Jamie produce. The movie works best as a character study sketched in tiny gestures and clever lines. Baumbach is especially perceptive about the way the next generation can seem so foreign to people who still think of themselves as young. Josh and Cornelia aren’t refusing to grow up; they did, but something still feels missing.
The movie’s too-literal answer to that absence is its greatest flaw. The ending is a little too pat, but the rest of the film avoids siding with or against the conflicted Josh. Baumbach shows compassion not just for his surrogate character, played by an especially toned down and controlled Stiller, but for the young and old alike. Seyfried gives Darby added dimension in her solo conversations with Cornelia, as both women struggle to avoid being defined by the men in their lives— Darby by Jamie, and Cornelia by her intellectually imposing father (played by Charles Grodin).
Grodin’s gently acerbic presence is very welcome here. The four leads are terrific, but the casting of the supporting characters is especially on point. Beastie Boy Horovitz turns out to be a perfect comedic sidekick, and “Puff the Magic Dragon” songwriter Peter Yarrow is wonderful as the cerebral subject of Josh’s stalled documentary, recalling Woody Allen’s noble artistic failure in the movie-within-a-movie in the great Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Really, you can’t talk about Baumbach without talking about Woody Allen. He’s Baumbach’s clearest, strongest influence, especially in the younger man’s studied proficiency with a perfectly timed non-sequitur joke or impossibly brilliant quip. (If the Crimes and Misdemeanors parallel wasn’t enough, Baumbach even casts Dree Hemingway, daughter of Manhattan costar Mariel Hemingway.) But while Baumbach borrows both formally and tonally from the Wood-man, his thematic and stylistic concerns are all his own. While We’re Young ranks among his best work yet, evidencing a style and voice that are now fully evolved and at peak efficiency.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.