A sharp, breezy take on a Manhattan couple suffering from a mid-life crisis, While We’re Young continues Noah Baumbach’s two-decade long winning streak as one of the most insightful American filmmakers working today. Dating all the way back to his terrific 1995 debut, Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach has been fascinated with characters who are undone by their various anxieties, whether it be about divorce (The Squid and the Whale), sibling rivalry (Margot at the Wedding), or growing up (Frances Ha). In this most recent outing, Baumbach delves back into the struggles of forty-something narcissists that he recently explored in his previous Ben Stiller vehicle, Greenberg, and though While We’re Young may lack the disciplined structure and scathingly funny bitterness of that picture, it’s still packed to the brim with snappy dialogue, inspired comic set pieces and wonderful performances.
Stiller stars as Josh, a documentary filmmaker who’s been struggling to complete his latest film for the past ten years. He and his wife, Cornelia (the luminescent Naomi Watts) both feel out of place; they’ve reached a point in their mid-forties where all of their friends have settled down with kids and have embraced parenthood with open arms. Not only do Josh and Cornelia have no children, but they also haven’t come to terms with being a middle-aged couple; their lack of occupational and parental success at this age has drastically stunted their relationship. That is, until one day when a young married couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) attend one of Josh’s lectures on one of his older, little-known pictures, who idolize him and his work. Soon, these married hipsters open up Josh and Cornelia’s eyes to their generational perspective of New York, cueing a series of hysterical set pieces and poignant self-discoveries.
This is certainly the softest and most conventional picture Baumbach’s crafted yet, but that’s not a criticism by any means. It certainly covers familiar ground, but the strength of Baumbach’s writing and the comic timing of its exceptional cast make this material seem fresh and alive. The first two thirds of the film, in particular, are a riot, playing out like a non-stop parade of hilariously clever exchanges, and even some inspired physical comedy. One sequence, in which Darby takes Cornelia to a hip-hop class, had me howling; Watts’ commitment to looking ridiculous on top of nailing her deliveries proves she’s a gifted comedian in addition to being one of our best dramatic actors working today.
Unfortunately, it’s also Baumbach’s wobbliest film, and While We’re Young builds to an anticlimax that not only kills a good chunk of its momentum, but also curdles some of the more charming moments that came before it. While most of Baumbach’s earlier works have a sinister streak of cynicism conveyed through their egotistical protagonists throughout a majority of their runtimes, While We’re Young’s contempt for millennials is unleashed in one big burst towards the end of the picture, making it feel both condescending and undeniably sour. In addition to that, despite Baumbach’s great reputation for writing strong female characters, Watts and Seyfried’s characters are pushed off to the side in favor of centering on the relationship between Stiller and Driver, which is a shame, especially considering that these are the best comedic roles these two women have had in quite some time.
Still, even if While We’re Young stumbles a bit towards the end, it’s still one of the funniest and most perceptive comedies to be released so far this year. Baumbach clearly cares about his flummoxed protagonists, and uses them as cyphers for his own angst about middle age, often in genuine, self-deprecating fashion, giving the humor a real sense of pathos even during the most light-hearted gags. It might be somewhat messy, but so is life, and it should be cherished regardless of your age.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Film Length: 94 minutes
March 27, 2015 (Limited)
April 3, 2015 (Wide)
Distributor: A24 Films