Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin
New York auteur Noah Baumbach seems to make films about life stages. The Squid and the Whale, his 2005 calling card, was about a teenager dealing with the breakdown of his parents’ marriage. The critically acclaimed Frances Ha was about being in your twenties and trying to forge your identity. His newest film, While We’re Young, is about reaching middle age. It is about reaching that point where you no longer feel like a kid pretending to be an adult, about reaching that point when you realise that you no longer understand young people.
Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a childless couple in their forties and have recently lost the last of their peers to babies. Cornelia is the producer daughter of celebrated documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), while Josh is a documentary maker who, after initial acclaim, has spent the best part of the last decade working on an ambitious and intellectual film which in its current form is a six-and-a-half hour film that is seven hours too long. They meet a young, hipster couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie is an aspiring documentarian who is a fan of Josh’s first film, while Darby makes artisanal ice-cream. After initial reservation, Josh and Cornelia find themselves swept up by this young couple and given a new lease on life.
Because it is a Noah Baumbach film While We’re Young is intellectual and talky. In the first twenty minutes you get references to Henrik Ibsen, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean-Luc Godard, and documentarians the Maysles brothers and D. A. Pennebaker. That said, this comedy is definitely broader than we have seen before from Baumbach.
While We’re Young takes an outsiders look at hipster culture, and has some fun with its reversal of the old and the new. We watch the older couple reading on their Kindles and scrolling through Netflix for something to watch, while the younger couple play classic board games and choose a film from their library of VHS tapes. At one point the two couples are trying to remember something. Josh whips out his phone to look it up before being rebuked by Jamie, “Let’s try and remember it.” When results aren’t forthcoming and Josh looks to his phone again, Darby stops him, “Let’s just not know what it is.”
But the film takes a turn. Not content just to make observational jokes about bicycles, hats and typewriters, While We’re Young starts to explore the substance beneath the style of this young couple. While initially inspired and energised by spending time with Jamie, Josh starts to become wary of him. Jamie is cool, passionate and charming, but is he sincere? With three generations of documentarians in its cast of characters, discussions of concepts like truth and authenticity naturally come to the fore.
Ben Stiller is strong as Josh effectively playing both the giddy excitement of being swept up in a new friendship and the frustration of being the only one who believes something isn’t right, while Adam Driver – seemingly Hollywood’s anointed one – continues to add feathers to his cap as the charismatic Jamie. The two female characters are unfortunately not as fleshed out as their respective partners, but Watts and Seyfried do well with what they are given. The real pleasure of the cast though is to see Charles Grodin back in a meaningful role for the first time in many years.
Baumbach, forty-five, has said that the film was inspired by recently spending a lot of time with young people – his current partner, actress Greta Gerwig is fourteen years his junior. The result is a really sharp film which quite acutely presents the insecurity of middle age and the suspicion with which every generation treats the next.
Review by Duncan McLean
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