Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Generation Cool: Offbeat, witty "While We're Young" makes one feel old

While We're Young (2015) 
97 min., rated R.

We say age is only a number to make ourselves feel better, but once we all hit a certain age, we feel our youth slipping away more and more. In his latest film, 45-year-old filmmaker Noah Baumbach looks at a mid-life crisis and generational gaps on a relatable human level. As a gently satirical follow-up to the writer-director's wonderfully breezy and generous 2013 character study "Frances Ha," "While We're Young" is characteristically offbeat and cutting but also wistful and painfully true. For a while, the film is insightful and full of empathy and clever details, but even when it loses its way, the ideas that Baumbach sets up early on in the film outweigh the less-workable material. For better or for worse, "While We're Young" will make one feel old.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a happily childless married couple in their mid-40s living in New York. They are fully content with not rearing their own children, unlike friends their age (Maria Dizzia and former Beastie Boy Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz) who have just celebrated having a newborn. Josh's filmmaking career is in a rut, having taken ten years to get his second documentary rolling and not having enough money to pay his DP. He's also overshadowed by his father-in-law, highly esteemed documentarian Leslie Brightman (Charles Grodin), whose films are produced by Cornelia. After Josh meets a hip, late-20s married couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), and introduces them to Cornelia, the middle-aged couple realizes they need more spontaneity in their life. Jamie is a jack of all trades, fawning over Josh's work and wanting to break into filmmaking as well, while Darby makes her own ice cream. Time might have passed by Josh and Cornelia, but their new (and much younger) friends give them a source of newfound energy. Rejuvenated but barely able to keep up, Josh and Cornelia find out the hard way that buying a retro fedora, hanging out at "street beaches," going on a weekend getaway to "vomit up their demons" in a cultish "Ayahuasca ceremony," and taking hip-hop dance classes won't make them any younger.

Bitingly opening with quotes from Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder" about the middle-aged terrified of the next generation, "While We're Young" captures the dichotomy of generations both old and new. As his wont, writer-director Noah Baumbach finds a way to poke fun at and have an affection for both sets of characters. After both couples meet, there is a perceptive and amusing montage of contrasts mined for observational humor the Gen-Xers use their mobile devices, computers and Apple TV, while the beatniks listen to vinyl records, use typewriters, play actual boardgames, watch VHS tapes, and live in a loft apartment with a pet chicken in a cage. Even without any irony, Jamie listens to Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," while it is Josh who says, "I remember when this song was just considered bad." Another ever-identifiable detail has both couples trying to think of the word "marzipan," to which both Josh and Cornelia are ready to Google, but Jamie and Darby stop them. "Let's just not know." Spending so much time with the out-of-touch Jamie and Darby, who embrace the past and the art of making things, Josh and Cornelia practically take a vacation from their ages, to the point that Josh can barely fathom that he's developing arthritis. 

Ben Stiller's performance here as Josh is more on par with his early work in 1996's "Flirting with Disaster" than when he sold his soul to the "Meet the Parents" and "Night at the Museum" sequels. Having worked with Baumbach before on 2010's "Greenberg," where he played the narcissistic, not-particularly-likable title role and made him into an ultimately sympathetic person, Stiller proves what a grounding force he can be when he isn't playing it so broadly. As Josh, who isn't much of a collaborator when it comes to his work, he can still get a laugh with a mere reaction but finds deeper nuances in a character written with flaws and humanity. Naomi Watts is terrific as usual, painting Cornelia as a sympathetic woman who is finding less to relate to with friends her age who make having babies their priority. Her scene in a hip-hop dance class with Darby is a hoot of a highlight. In the characterizations of Jamie and Darby, these two hipsters could have become abrasive, pretentious caricatures, but Adam Driver has such an off-kilter charisma and yet a surreptitious side, and Amanda Seyfried's Darby, meanwhile, may be the most sketchily defined character of the four but the actress infuses her with an earthy spirit and humor.

The film takes a left turn that isn't fully consistent with the focus or the intent of the first two acts, which are sharply and wittily observed. The twist of sorts has the film taking on integrity and egotism in documentary filmmaking and a confrontation between Josh and Jamie, whose sincerity is questioned, that seems to come from a different movie entirely. Luckily, "While We're Young" satisfyingly sticks the landing in finding Josh and Cornelia a little bit wiser and stronger but having similar reservations that they had when we first found them. It's a journey of funny, whip-smart insights and details without being cruel or too easy on either generational couple.


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