While We’re Young Review

(2.5 STARS)

While We’re Young is the type of film in which Vanity Fair publishes a full page interview with the question, “Are you a hipster?” It’s the type of film in which an echo effect is added to the final line in a climactic fight. It’s the type of film in which a successful filmmaker type can’t explain the premise of his latest — an ironic meta commentary in a film so confused and misguided.

One of the worst things about While We’re Young, however, is that it’s written and directed by a master, Noah Baumbach, whose last film, Frances Ha, was both a career high and one of the best films of the first half of the decade. Worse still, perhaps, is that While We’re Young contains material that’s both perceptive and laugh-out-loud funny. This prevents While We’re Young from being among the worst films of the year — it’s not even close — but it’s easily the most disappointing.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are happily married New Yorkers, though they struggle with infertility issues and the fact that their friends are all settling into new lives filled with “Mommy and Me” singing classes and chronic back pain. Not Josh and Cornelia — they’re still youthful and interesting. Life hasn’t yet passed them by … right?

Josh is a documentarian, and Cornelia produces documentaries alongside her moderately successful (but creatively struggling) husband and infinitely more accomplished living legend of a father, Leslie (Charles Grodin). They’re approached after Josh gives a lecture by a younger couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). The former fashions himself a documentarian and greatly admires Josh’s work. More notably, they’re both fascinatingly free spirits who bring out the most youthful tendencies in Josh and Cornelia. Soon, they’re tripping like crazy at ayahuasca ceremonies and going to hip-hop dance classes, and Josh can hardly be seen without his new Jamie-inspired bowler hat.

It sounds great, but Jamie and Darby both have some off-putting tendencies, and a heavily foreshadowed professional rivalry ultimately emerges between the two men in this multi-generational quartet. That’s when While We’re Young goes off the rails. Seeing this older couple bend over backward to embrace the millennial dream is amusing and a perfect fit for Baumbach’s sensibilities. He’s the ultimate filmmaker for a specific type of person, and there was potential in this film’s first 40 minutes to serve as a natural thematic counterpoint to his masterpiece. Why abandon that? It’s such a bummer.

And it’s not as if the documentary material is particularly interesting in its own right. Both Josh’s and Jamie’s films are terrible — TERRIBLE! We’re definitely supposed to think that, but to what end, then, are we supposed to care about the ethical or unethical ways they go about filling in the respective blanks in their films’ timelines? If both films suck, then what’s the difference? And no one else around them seems to care, either. Leslie is involved because he has to be. Their prospective financier is a one-dimensional tool. For the life of me, I can’t understand it.

At least he’s working in sync with his cast, though. Greta Gerwig, sadly, is no where to be found, but Ben Stiller is a familiar face for Baumbach. I’d argue the actor’s work in Greenberg is as good as anything he’s ever done before, and while he’s not working on that level in While We’re Young, the role of Josh fits him like a glove. Naomi Watts proves herself game for some monumentally silly-looking stuff as Cornelia — she’s probably the best in show. Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfriend, meanwhile, are perfectly cast as the two younger members of the main four. Driver in particular appears to be playing a caricature of everything his detractors say he is. Somehow, he does it successfully.

While We’re Young was the first of two Baumbach films released in 2015, and I’ve yet to see if Mistress America is closer to this one or Frances Ha. Hopefully, it’s the latter, and if that’s the case, I’d recommend Baumbach not leave his muse’s side for quite a long while because this film doesn’t come together in any satisfying way.

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