A generational culture clash, Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young places its lead characters on the unstable precipice of (perceived) old age. With his trademark wry wit and pointedly human characters, Baumbach makes villains out of none by carefully exposing the omnipresence of good and bad in his talented ensemble cast.
Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and Josh (Ben Stiller) are getting old. In their early 40s, life has “officially” begun. After their best friends have a baby (great performances from Maria Dizzia and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz), Cornelia and Josh — having resigned themselves to childlessness after a series of failed fertility treatments — find themselves at a crossroads. However, a chance encounter with a vibrant young couple has an immediate effect of rejuvenation on the increasingly-stagnant Josh.
Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) are idealized Brooklyn hipsters. Their shunning of modern conveniences (and a penchant for vinyl, VHS tapes, and world religions) floor Cornelia and Josh, who have both come to rely heavily on technology. Pulled between the contradictory worlds, the older couple relishes in the energy of youth but secretly longs for the stable comforts of adulthood.
Baumbach juxtaposes his oppositional worlds beautifully. While we are skeptical of Jamie and Darby’s motives, there are some deep truths in their many lines of reasoning. Beyond the appeal of freedom and joviality, the young hipsters have a quirky — yet acute — philosophy on life. In a modern world so full of disconnected, technologically-obsessed strangers, Jamie’s assertion of “let’s just not know” is disarmingly brilliant when the group is confronted with a “Google-able” question. His charisma and unique perspective on the world allow the audience to better understand Josh’s infatuation. We get an expected dose of “uncoolness” from Josh and Cornelia’s best friends, Marina (Dizzia) and Fletcher (Horovitz), as they struggle to adjust to life with a baby. One of the most powerful reveals and most uncomfortable moments (speaking as a non-parent) comes after Marina invites Cornelia to a “music class” with her new mom friends. While the ensuing scene is comedically spot-on, it serves a wonderful dual purpose as one of the many sacrifices that accompanies having children.
Baumbach brings plenty of vitality to his direction, inhabiting both the raw freneticism of the youthful characters and the stoic consideration of his more senior players. While not as visually striking as his previous film, Frances Ha, Baumbach’s ability to tell a story is solid and unflinching. His love for the New York scenery is plainly evident by focusing on small local landmarks and neighborhood charm, while Jamie’s “street beach” party is a nostalgic throwback to a distant New York. As a block party surrounds an opened fire hydrant with barbecues lit and coolers stocked, the scene represents an idyllic portrait of the city Baumbach loves. Adam Stockhausen’s production design perfectly showcases character personality, setting a mood that dialogue might not otherwise convey. This, however, does not stop Baumbach from over-announcing many of these subtle details using Stiller or a lingering camera as his mouthpiece.
With characters seemingly written specifically for them, Stiller and Driver venture little from their archetypal roles. Driver, the consummate hipster, blends seamlessly into the persona of Jamie, yet it’s hardly a far cry from his preceding efforts. By only unmasking himself late in the second act, Driver’s stream of inside jokes, name mispronunciations and brash confidence have become token stand-ins for his roles (HBO’s Girls and Frances Ha). Stiller gets into his usual, neurotic trouble; a string of self-imposed challenges that he must overcome in order to “grow” as a person. Seyfried and Watts deliver commendable performances, although each are given less and less focus as the narrative wears on. Surprisingly (or maybe not depending on one’s feelings about the Beastie Boys), Horovitz gives the most memorable speech of the entire film; a truthful, melancholic confession about raising a baby and the pain of slowly growing up.
A plethora of likable characters and tidy wrap-ups diminish the artistic potential of While We’re Young, as Baumbach doesn’t compromise the film’s abilities as a general crowdpleaser. Trite themes are overpowered by the director’s storytelling prowess, and character tropes are negated by an indelible humanity. Somewhat disappointing in the canon of Baumbach films, While We’re Young can still be an engaging, thought-provoking film for legions of viewers.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.