‘While We’re Young’
Director: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts
3 (out of 5) Globes
The filmmaker Noah Baumbach preys on the dreaded fears of a certain milieu. That milieu, mind you, is fairly specific: middle class, smartass urbanites from Generation X or thereabouts, and probably, though not exclusively, male. (“Frances Ha,” written with his star/paramour Greta Gerwig, was very much a Baumbach film for women, although with many of the same anxieties.) This crowd either sounds like the hyper-articulate quip-flingers from his debut, the post-collegiate-purgatorial “Kicking and Screaming,” or, more likely, think they do or aspire to same. And they also may have seen “Greenberg,” starring Ben Stiller as a mordantly funny total a—hole, as a warning sign: don’t mature, or at least procreate, and this bitter loner will, come middle age, be you.
Now there’s “While We’re Young,” which preys on a more general, though still specific, fear. Stiller’s Josh and Naomi Watts’ Cornelia are 40-somethings without children, and as such the very last of a dying breed: the ones who didn’t surrender to the siren song of the baby cult. Even their friend essayed by former Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz has embraced ugly shirts to play dad. To their rescue come 25-year-olds Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Josh and Cornelia find themselves hooked on their new friends’ young stylings, ditching lame grown-up parties that end at 10 p.m. for Bushwick street bashes, as well as biking everywhere, taking snooty acid trips and wearing funny Brooklyn young person hats.
In terms of the effectiveness of its scare tactics and the precision of the one-liners, “While We’re Young” is uncut Baumbach. As ever, he has a peerless gift for specific, mundane gripes (e.g., Josh carping about a bedside lamp whose bulb is a blinding 75 watts) and for name-dropping semi-forgotten populist cinema. (Nothing here is as choice as “Greenberg” citing the Lindsay Lohan vehicle “Just My Luck,” but “Girl, Interrupted” will do.) And again, Stiller knows how to deliver Baumbach’s quips with the right amount of withering deadpan, all while Driver plays incorrigible Driver. Though the women have less to do, Watts brings needed authority to Cornelia — who maintains she missed the boat on housing her own pregnancy — and Seyfried nails the lines’ needed dry wit.
And then there’s the third act. The plot, such as this agreeable shamble of episodes has one, finds Josh, a noted though apparently unwatched documentarian, working with Jamie, himself a semi-casually aspiring filmmaker who thinks non-fiction could be fun too. The sincerity of Jamie’s doc style comes into question in the final stretch thanks to a plot twist that’s all the more shocking because “While We’re Young” hardly felt like the kind of film that would even have a plot twist, much less one that would evolve into an exploration of ethics in documentary filmmaking.
It’s tempting to say the third act plays like a takedown of the young, Baumbach barking, via Stiller’s Josh, about his lawn and how certain people should get off it. But nothing’s so simple. Underneath the digs at kids these days — how they watch movies off VHS, listen to old music on LP and don’t have any money — is a criticism at the olds as well, with Josh only a slightly more together version of the deeply unpleasant insult machine Roger Greenberg. “While We’re Young” becomes less fun in its final stretch, but that doesn’t mean it’s less insightful, in its sneaky way.