Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz, Maria Dizzia.
“Every generation blames the one before.”
While We’re Young is the latest film from writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid And The Whale, etc) and it is a smart, intelligent social satire about generational conflict, mid-life crises, the malaise of middle age, the failure to realise one’s full potential, and middle aged soul searching. These are themes that are common to Baumbach, who makes intelligent and sharply written films that offer a unique and idiosyncratic exploration of the human condition. As is often the case with Baumbach’s films, there seem to be some semi-autobiographical elements to this film. And While We’re Young is more accessible and broadly appealing than his last film, the quirky and vastly overrated Frances Ha.
While We’re Young tells the story of two different couples, the fortysomething Josh and Cornelia and the more free spirited twentysomethings Jamie and Darcy. Josh (played by Ben Stiller) is a documentary filmmaker who has been labouring away for a decade on his latest project, a dry profile of an aging academic (played by Peter Yarrow, of folk group Peter, Paul and Mary fame). Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have been unable to have children, which means that they somehow feel uncomfortable and out of place with their circle of friends, who all have children. They are considering the option of adoption.
But then they meet the young hipster couple of Jamie (Adam Driver, from tv series Girls, etc) and Darcy (Amanda Seyfried), who usually act on a whim, live for the moment, and pursue their passions. Their passion for life temporarily reinvigorates Josh and Cornelia’s life and a friendship develops between the two unlikely couples. Jamie is also an aspiring documentary filmmaker himself, and enlists Josh’s help for his latest project. But it seems that Jamie has his own agenda in approaching Josh.
Baumbach infuses the script with lots of idiosyncratic touches and some clever cinematic in-jokes. The film is a look at the contemporary generation gap, and offers a biting criticism of the younger generation’s fixation with social media, etc. Baumbach paints a rather unflattering picture of the younger generation here. His look at the pretensions of the hipster couple and their fascination with all things retro – vinyl records, VHS tapes, music, board games and fashion – is amusing and arch. He opens the film with an 1892 quote from playwright Henrik Ibsen regarding the younger generation and their rapacious hunger. But Baumbach also seems to treat Josh and his search for truth and veracity in his filmmaking with contempt.
Somehow Baumbach seems to bring out the best in Stiller, who starred in his Greenberg. Baumbach wrote the role of Josh specifically for Stiller, who brings plenty of his usual smugness and cynicism to the character. Stiller does comedy of discomfort quite well. With his neurosis and self doubt, Josh is not the most sympathetic of characters, but Stiller still manages to find some warmth and decency. Watts brings a truthful and wise quality to her performance as Cornelia. Watts and Stiller develop a great dynamic as the couple whose lives seem to have become stuck in a rut of late.
I find Driver a rather annoying presence on screen, and here he plays another hyped up and energetic character – selfish, narcissistic and lazy – who somehow grates. And it is good to see Charles Grodin back on screen again, and although he brings some gravitas to his small but important role as Josh’s father-in-law, a revered documentary filmmaker in his own right, he is a little underused. There is tension between him and Josh that is continually simmering away in the background. And Seyfried’s Darcy is not particularly well developed either.
There are not a lot of laugh out loud moments here, and a number of moments that jar, in particular the couples visit to a meditation centre, which tonally doesn’t fit the rest of the film. And Baumbach also seems to wrap things up with a rather neat, pat conclusion.
There are some slick production values that enrich the dramedy. There is a great retro soundtrack though that features the likes of Paul McCartney and Survivor that adds to the emotional weight of the material. And cinematographer Sam Levy, who did the glorious black and white cinematography for Frances Ha, uses the New York streetscapes well to add atmosphere, and the city itself almost becomes another character.
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