While We're Young (2014) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Maria Dizzia, Adam Horovitz, Matthew Maher, Peter Yarrow
Small role: Peter Bogdanovixh
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Review published April 11, 2015
Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Watch) reunites with his Greenburg writer-director in Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale) for another astute comedy-drama that explores the difference between hipster millennials and the ever more untrusting nature of the older set toward them with While We're Young. The gap between 40-somethings and 20-somethings is explored with a renewed contrast, as the two try to coexist as friends, though the older generation finds it tricky to come to grips with how the younger views life, entertainment, and what it means to have integrity in a world where everything is a competition for your attention. Meanwhile, millennials enjoy the kitsch factor of how people lived in the analog past, but embrace more of the dated, era-defining qualities more so than for their enduring ones.
Stiller plays a New York filmmaker of some success, Josh (Stiller), who has spent the last eight years stagnating on what to do about an esoteric documentary he is putting together, sacrificing travel, jobs, and the potential of starting a family while he wrestles with how to complete it -- or, at least, make it less boring. His marriage with Cornelia (Watts, Insurgent) is growing about as stale as his creativity, until they meet Jamie (Driver, This is Where I Leave You), an up-and-coming young documentarian who idolizes him, as well as his spirited ice-cream-making wife, Darby (Seyfried, A Million Ways to Die in the West), who open up their world to experience what it is like to be young and free again, even if it costs their connection with the friends their own age, who are all moving on to parenthood anyway. But, at the crossroads of their lives, will they embrace carefree abandon, or will the pressures of maturity further cement them into their set ways?
The three generations depicted in the film, not only Josh and Jamie's, but also Josh's father-in-law, Leslie (Grodin, The Ex), can also be differentiated by their own approach to documentary truth. Leslie's era embraced showing things for what they are, simply and honestly, and what you glean is what you bring in to it. Josh's documentary style tries to dole out lots of subtext and meaning to everything, ultimately making it a film that is about both educating his audience (often talking instead of showing), but carving out an artistic vision that comes from within him, perhaps mirroring that of Baumbach himself in his approach to narrative. Meanwhile, Jamie's approach is really all about him, allowing himself to be just as much a part of the story as the subjects he covers, and not afraid to bend the truth in order to make for a more entertaining watch -- the current era of "reality", which mostly means recreations of truth unscripted.
Although it isn't as clean or structured enough to hit home with a mainstream crowd, especially in a climax that feels, well, anticlimactic, Baumbach excels at throwing in plenty of revealing details to his characters and in each situation, which may take multiple viewings to fully unpack. And his characters (well, the male ones anyway), refreshingly, manage to play around as certain archetypes without being pigeonholed by defined, sitcom-level stereotypes, fully rounded and more complex than most we would get from an ensemble cast. It's a deliberately messy film about lives that appropriately also lack structure, trying to find roots and meaning, but it seems to grow ever more elusive for some people, even those entering middle age.
As the opening late 19th-century excerpts that emblazon the intro of the film, taken from Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder", shows, the angst felt by from one generation is nothing new, and will continue to be so. Nevertheless, every generation needs a story about the gaps in the generations, and While We're Young is as astute and observant an example for this one.
©2015 Vince Leo