While We’re Young (2014)
Editor’s Notes: While We’re Young is currently out in limited release. For more on the film, read our interview with its director Noah Baumbach.
No longer the wunderkind or enfant terrible who wrote and directed his first feature film, Kicking and Screaming (not to be confused with the Will Ferrell vehicle), at the relatively tender age of 26, Noah Baumbach, now in his mid-forties, has turned his critical filmmaker’s eye to the inherent struggle or conflict between generations, one slipping into, if not always accepting, compromise and disappointment, the other, embracing the seemingly endless personal and professional opportunities open to anyone in their twenties (assuming, of course, the benefits of class, gender, and race). That struggle, however, doesn’t make an immediate appearance in Baumbach’s ninth film, While We’re Young, a wry, observational comedy-drama. It’s there as subtext, as thematic material for a third act that upends the first and second acts, turning what could have been yet another variation on territory exhaustively mined by Woody Allen into something a bit deeper, a bit more profound.
… Noah Baumbach, now in his mid-forties, has turned his critical filmmaker’s eye to the inherent struggle or conflict between generations.
When we first meet a semi-happily married, middle-aged couple, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), at the center of While We’re Young, they’re attempting to entertain a newly born infant, the child of longtime friends, Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz). Childless initially by circumstance (several miscarriages) and later by choice (adoption wasn’t an option apparently), Josh and Cornelia feel disconnected not only to their friends, but to each other as well. They’re drifters, not in the now archaic use of that term, but in the sense that they’ve eased into a comfortable, challenge-free middle age. Josh continues to work on his second documentary, a bloated, six-hour mess that he refuses to edit down into a manageable length. Cornelia seems content to play wife while occasionally helping her father, legendary documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin, masterfully deadpan, as always), produce his films. Outside of a continuing education class Josh teaches, they have no other visible means of financial support (typical of New York City-set films).
Josh initially meets the other couple at the center of While We’re Young, Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring documentarian, and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), an artisanal ice-cream maker, after one of his classes. Jamie shamelessly sucks up to Josh, praising Josh’s first (and only) documentary and eventually convincing Josh to hang with him and Darby. Soon enough, Cornelia joins them, rounding out a relationship dynamic that sees a reinvigorated Josh and Cornelia try out new things (or old things long discarded) like roller-blading, bicycling, fedora-wearing (for Josh), and hip-hop dancing (for Cornelia), along with a drug-fueled session to find their apparently lost inner selves (much vomiting ensues). Unsurprisingly, Josh and Cornelia ignore their relationship with Marina and Fletcher, essentially allowing it to wither and practically die as they pursue more youthful adventures.
Baumbach refuses to take sides, instead preferring to expose the similarities between couples separated by two decades.
Baumbach, however, doesn’t so much skewer either couple as gently satirize them. As it is, both couples start off as borderline caricatures, Gen-Xers in the case of Josh and Cornelia, vaguely liberal, definitely self-centered, affluent and bored; Millennial hipsters in the case of Jamie and Darby, recycling decades-old pop culture and technology more as a socio-cultural statement than actual interest. Baumbach leaves open the question of whether Jamie and Darby’s hipster pretensions are sincere or ironic (it’s up to the audience to decide), but they’re just as self-serving and narcissistic as Josh and Cornelia are (if more overtly). Baumbach refuses to take sides, instead preferring to expose the similarities between couples separated by two decades. It’s those two decades and presumably the acceptance of the unavoidable, bittersweet consequences of aging that ultimately makes the difference for Josh and Cornelia’s romantic relationship and partnership.
While We’re Young is a wry, observational comedy-drama. It’s there as subtext, as thematic material for a third act that upends the first and second acts, turning what could have been yet another variation on territory exhaustively mined by Woody Allen into something a bit deeper, a bit more profound.