Our story begins right around the time that Josh Schreibnick (Ben Stiller, Flirting with Disaster) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts, I Heart Huckabees) are making a surprising discovery about themselves: they're getting old. Okay, not “old,” but they're right on the edge of middle age. They decided a while ago that they didn't want to have kids, but these days they're re-examining that belief on a regular basis. After all, it won't be long before the decision is made for them. Adding further anxiety to their current situation is the fact that their bank account is starting to run dry, as Josh struggles to finish the ambitious documentary he's been working on for the past eight years.
One day, Josh meets Jamie Massey (Adam Driver, Girls), an aspiring young documentarian who just so happens to be a fan of Josh's (very obscure) previous film. Josh and Cornelia have lunch with Jamie and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried, Chloe), and everyone gets along just fine. Later that night, Josh can't stop marveling over how cool and interesting these young people seem. Cornelia is a little more skeptical (she doesn't quite know what to make of Jamie), but she also admits that hanging out with the young hipsters invigorates her. Soon, Josh and Cornelia have all but abandoned the dinner parties and social gathering of their other friends, instead choosing to join Jamie and Darby on a series of eccentric adventures.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach mines an enormous amount of laughter (and a moderate amount of tension) out of the gap that exists between Generation X and millennials, though his sympathies clearly lie with the former group (understandable, given that Baumbach is 46). Josh and Cornelia are eager to recapture their youth and prove to themselves that they're still hip and relevant, but there are moments of friction in the philosophical differences between the two generations. Exhibit A: when Josh volunteers to pick up the check after the quartet's initial lunch outing, Jamie doesn't protest or even offer an obligatory, “Oh, you don't have to do that!” Instead, Jamie simply says, “Thanks.” Josh seems slightly taken aback, but what can he say? After all, he just volunteered to pay for lunch. It's not like he didn't mean it.
It's easy to imagine a version of this movie that plays out as a “Generation X does things like this, but hipsters do things like THIS,” stand-up routine, but Baumbach is too sharp a filmmaker to let that happen. He has a knack for taking left turns when you're expecting him to go right, and continually adds new layers to his characters as the film proceeds (save for Josh, who is precisely the earnest, frustrated man he appears to be). His dialogue is such a pleasure to listen to, and part of what makes it special is that the dialogue's effect leans heavily on the specific aura of the actors he casts. In one scene, Jamie tries to energize Josh by playing Survivor's “Eye of the Tiger.” “I remember when that was just a bad song,” Josh says. It's a decent line, but it's turned into a side-splitting one thanks to Stiller's delivery. In his hands, it's simultaneously a complaint, a confession, an apology and an argument, all of which are half-hearted (within seconds, Stiller is agreeably pumping his fists in the air – this is also half-hearted).
There's also a great deal of humor in the film's bewilderment over the hipster tendency to fetishize outdated forms of technology. Jamie's apartment is a dusty wonderland of fedoras, board games, vinyl records and old typewriters. For him, all of this stuff is a fresh new path to a purer form of life. However, Josh grew up with a lot of this stuff, and is generally pleased to live in a world that has provided him with superior technology. In one telling scene, the four friends struggle to think of the name of a certain type of Greek food. “I'll look it up,” Josh says, pulling his smartphone out of his pocket. “No, that would be too easy!” Jamie insists. “Let's try to remember it.” A minute later: “Let's just not know.”
Meanwhile, the struggles Josh experiences with his documentary (and the astonishing success Jamie has with his) lead to an examination of the perils of being too smart for your own good, a subject Baumbach seems pretty well-equipped to address. Josh's documentary is currently 100 hours long (“I need to cut it down”), and uses interviews with a dull but profoundly intelligent man as the basis for an endlessly complex examination of... er... well, something. Some of the film's most entertaining scenes are the moments when Stiller valiantly attempts to synopsize his movie for potential investors/viewers, which generally leads to a stream of unfocused verbal diarrhea built on a lot of ambitious buzzwords. Adding further pressure to the process is the fact that Josh's father-in-law Leslie (an enjoyably pompous Charles Grodin, Midnight Run) is an immensely successful documentary filmmaker (comparisons to Albert Maysles and Les Blank are made) who casts an awfully large sfhadow.
You may notice that I've mentioned Josh and Jamie far more frequently than I've mentioned Cornelia and Darby. That's partially because the film tends to do the same, giving the female characters a decent amount of screentime but struggling to depict them with as much razor-sharp insight as it depicts all of its male characters (even cantankerous old Leslie seems better-defined than Cornelia does). Still, both actresses have some good moments – Watts in particular turns her attempts at hip-hop dancing into glorious moments of physical comedy.
Admittedly, the film veers oh-so-close to “get off my lawn!” territory during its closing moments, as Baumbach more or less throws his hands up at kids these days and dives into a surprisingly conventional summation of what really matters in life. Still, he's remarkably adept at capturing the struggles, values, desires and insecurities of his own generation, and that's a large part of what makes much of While We're Young a fairly rich viewing experience. When it comes to millennials, the film only manages to offer an “outsider looking in” perspective – something that feels more like an educated guess than genuine insight.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. In fact, it enhances the empathy the film has for Josh and Cordelia, because it shares the same questions they have. Additionally, by including Leslie in the mix, the film acknowledges that these generational frustrations aren't exactly a new thing. Leslie doesn't really understand Josh's generation. Josh doesn't really understand Jamie's generation. Someday, Jamie won't understand the younger generation, either. Cheers to the common ground we're able to find in spite of all this.
While We're Young
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Year: 2015