While We’re Young

WHILE WE'RE YOUNG film still DO NOT PURGE Ben Still and Naomi Watts

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are New Yorkers Josh and Cornelia, married and rocketing through their forties. Childless and conflicted about it, the pressure from old friends/new parents Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) doesn’t exactly help. Josh is a documentary filmmaker whose current project has consumed nearly a decade of his life. And he’s still shooting footage while his editor Tim (Matthew Maher) toils away without a paycheck. Cornelia’s father Leslie (Charles Grodin), also a documentarian, is about to receive a career retrospective at Lincoln Center, but Josh is too proud to accept Leslie’s help.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach, as sharp and funny as ever, continues to get better with age – especially when aging is his subject. “While We’re Young,” like the more ebullient “Mistress America,” is acutely aware of the impossible gulf between the unseasoned but effortlessly cool twentysomething and the experienced but fast-fading “grown-up” desperate to hang on to youth and all its real and imagined benefits. Josh and Cornelia are dazzled by Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), mere babies who use manual typewriters and watch movies on VHS. At first, the blossoming friendship holds the promise of restoring Josh and Cornelia to a more optimistic and creatively charged attitude, but Jamie and Darby might not be as wonderful as they initially appear.

As Josh and Cornelia sweat to keep up with their new pals, Baumbach delights in cooking up the film’s funniest stretch: a series of social comparisons highlighting the generational differences between the Generation Xers on the brink of arthritis (the disorder named in one of the movie’s most hilarious lines) and the hipster Millennials too young to identify with any of the original associations that accompany Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night)” or Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” From Vivaldi to A Tribe Called Quest, Baumbach makes excellent music selections as usual, and James Murphy returns with a solid score (and an instrumental, lullaby version of Bowie’s “Golden Years”).

“While We’re Young” spends more time unpacking Josh’s mental baggage than it does addressing any similar insecurities that might be felt by Cornelia. Additionally, Darby fades away as Jamie’s manipulations come to dominate a plot revolving around truth and ethics in nonfiction cinema. Regarding the gender imbalance, some reviewers have been harsh. A. O. Scott writes of “While We’re Young,” “Men make movies. Women make ice cream or babies, or help the men make their movies.” The diminished status of the female characters does not doom the film, but it might make some of Baumbach’s admirers long for more collaboration between the director and partner Greta Gerwig, whose importance to “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” lends those movies a deeply rewarding feminine perspective.

Instead, we grovel along with Josh, whose self-doubt resides well within Stiller’s wheelhouse. Stiller’s Roger Greenberg is a richer and more interesting character, in part because Baumbach explored the man’s capacity for cruelty in addition to glimmers of redemption. “While We’re Young” is lighter and broader than “Greenberg,” and the latter’s gradations give way to the former’s more black and white renderings. As the end game of the newer movie makes perfectly clear, it is Jamie, and not Josh, who is the callous, scheming asshole.

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