During a pivotal argument between married couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), the former tells the latter “fuck you”, making sure she understands that it’s not the kind of ironic, supposedly playful “fuck you” that the kids these days say to each other; it’s a sincere, uncompromising “fuck you”.
Ironic in its own way, While We’re Young is writer/director Noah Baumbach’s playful ‘fuck you’, noticeably different from the uncompromising, unlikeable but always sincere ‘fuck you’s he’s spent most of his career making. The film plays like a broad Hollywood comedy with characters who are his most sympathetic since Kicking and Screaming twenty years ago. This is easily Baumbach’s funniest and most accessible movie, and an admirable step outside his comfort zone. Unfortunately, with a story rich with thematic possibilities to explore, Baumbach’s eschewing of his usual, unabashedly cynical worldview leaves the film without much depth or insight.
The film deals with Josh and Cornelia’s shared midlife crisis, stemming from a blossoming friendship with a newlywed hipster twenty-somethings Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). At first drawn to the kids’ youthful energy, which has clearly faded from their own lives, Josh and Cornelia soon find themselves in a generational clash of ideologies that ends up threatening their relationship and their sense of selves.
This is interesting, potentially poignant stuff, and serves as a clear elaboration on my favorite scene from Baumbach’s underrated, misanthropic masterpiece Greenberg (2010), in which Stiller’s character Roger says to a group of teenagers: “The thing about you kids is that you’re all kind of insensitive. I’m glad I grew up when I did, cause your parents were too perfect at parenting. All that baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs; you’re just so sincere and interested in things! There’s a confidence in you guys that’s horrifying. You’re all ADD and carpal tunnel.”
While We’re Young delivers some similarly acute observations into the workings of both generations, but here Baumbach is working firmly with stereotypes. Not all young people are hipsters like Jamie and Darby (though it’s likely the type of young person Baumbach would have been had he been born later), but the script seems to erroneously paint this couple as an absolute encapsulation of millennials as a whole. There’s room to argue that this is simply Baumbach’s personal view of things; so why nitpick his subjective viewpoint? Because it treats his subjective viewpoint with the conviction that it’s objective.
The takeaway from the movie, which comes out during a fairly ham-fisted climactic screaming match, seems to be that millennials will lie to get ahead with almost pathological abandon, in a way never before seen. The example used in this film is through documentary filmmaking. Josh creates longwinded, boring, but earnest documentaries while Jamie makes sensationalist, click-bait worthy documentaries that fudge the truth in favor of a fleeting, whimsical sense of discovery. What this binary fails to mention is chronic lying is not an invention of the millennial generation, and documentaries are the worst example he could have used. Is Michael Moore a millennial? That five-word rebuttal could crush the film’s ultimate logic, and that’s a problem.
Where the film finds its footing is in its humor. Baumbach has always had witty, neurotic observational comedy down to a science, and though his introspective leanings tended to conceal his skill as a comedy writer, it comes out in full force here. Each cast member has fantastic comedic timing and give it their all, elevating what is little more than a string of basic albeit memorable sitcom sequences (an ayahuasca ceremony, a hip-hop dance class, etc.) The interplay between the two couples and their various generational quirks are astute and hilarious for what they are. Maria Dizzia, Dree Hemingway and the great Charles Grodin are charming as hell in their supporting roles.
Though it feels like a Hollywood comedy, there’s an extra layer of care put into every area of filmmaking. Sensitive camerawork and a soundtrack by James Murphy add a sense of polish that is not often present in today’s biggest star-driven comedy blockbusters. The plot, however, veers into strangely Machiavellian territory with some unwelcome cliche surprises and an ending that ties things up way too neatly.
Baumbach is clearly working through his own mixed feelings about the aging process and feelings, while trying to avoid the self-indulgence he’s been accused of in the past. There’s something hopeful about seeing the man branch out and offer something fun and airy for a change (Frances Ha went in that direction but hewed too close to art film conventions). Still, this film’s subject was rich enough that I had the unshakeable feeling it deserved a deeper exploration than it got, an exploration perhaps more fitting of his old, rather pessimistic self. What we’re left with is a fine movie in its own right; a fun and hilarious, overly-simplistic and eventually unsubstantial look at generational differences.
Score: 3 out of 5