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While We're Young

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach has made the trials and tribulations of growing up and growing old his foremost recurring theme as far back as his 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming. If one were to follow the main character of that film, a 20-something grad student weary of entering the real world post-college a couple decades into his future, it’s easy to imagine he’d end up like the main character of While We’re Young, Baumbach’s latest film. Starring Ben Stiller as Josh, a struggling documentary filmmaker and college professor who’s happily married to Cecilia (Naomi Watts), While We’re Young details the childless, middle aged couple’s unlikely friendship with a young hip couple, the aspiring documentary filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried).

Jamie and Darby hit it off with Josh after Jamie expresses admiration of Josh’s early work while sitting in on one of his documentary courses, and almost immediately Josh becomes enamored with Jamie’s youthful exuberance—the way the Brooklyn hipster’s DIY ethos and his seemingly un-ironic appropriating of retro-cultural signifiers from Josh’s youth (Lionel Ritchie albums, nostalgic board games, old horror movies on VHS to name a few) serve to stem the tides of Josh’s midlife crisis. Josh drags Cecilia away from Netflix nights spent staying in at their uncluttered yuppie apartment to the wild urban world of street parties, hip-hop dance lessons, nights on the town, and psychedelic drug trips. While Cecilia is less receptive to the couple’s charms at first, she does warm to them, especially as her girlfriends of the same age (all of them moms) become more concerned with pushing the idea of having babies on the infertile Cecilia. From there, the cross-generational comedy and the relationship between the four prove smart, funny, and remarkably well-observed.

Jamie eventually convinces Josh to put a long-gestating and troublesome documentary project he’s been stressing over for years on hold (at one point Josh even admits the political scientist whose lectures provide most of the film’s vague subject matter is “kinda boring”) to work with him on a smaller film he’s helming—about reconnecting with old friends on Facebook—that unexpectedly leads to a bigger story than Josh anticipated. It’s about here the relationships between the characters become more strained, just as the film does as well. Still, there’s a lot to appreciate before then. Baumbach is shaping up to be something of a post-millenial Woody Allen, the American cinema’s chronicler-in-chief of New York white folks and their various emotional hang-ups. A great deal of humor and pathos emerge from the interactions between Josh and Cecilia, and how Jamie’s presence provides them with the youthful excitement they felt missing for so long. The cast is uniformly excellent, in particular Driver, who brings Jamie to life with charm and an infectious energy, even as his character’s smugness reveals itself as the story unfolds. Also strong in a supporting role is Charles Grodin as Josh’s father-in-law and mentor, though one wishes his relationship with Josh had been expanded more.

Instead, the relationship between Josh and Jamie, and how it affects his marriage to Cecilia, arrives in a more formulaic fashion than one would hope. Baumbach seems to suggest that the naïve Jamie is ultimately just as much a product of the shallow culture of conformity and materialism that Josh spent his life and career hoping to never be apart of. While the insight is a valid one, it registers with less impact than one would hope, especially compared to the pitch perfect finales of Baumbach’s previous coming of age dramas, The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha. Perhaps this is because Baumbach himself, much closer to the age of Josh than Jamie, sympathizes so much more with the older man, even though it’s not a stretch to imagine many autobiographical elements existing in Jamie as well. Despite those quibbles, While We’re Young stands as another worthwhile entry in Baumbach’s strong and growing filmography, as well as an insightful and humorous character study.

Watch the trailer for While We're Young

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