The entirety of Noah Baumbach’s pitch-perfect cast shine in his latest feature While We’re Young, a charismatic ode to life in transition and the inevitability of generational irrelevance. Ben Stiller plays Josh, a documentary film-maker supposedly past his prime, fast approaching fifty and living in the shadow of his wife’s father Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a legendary documentarian in his own right who is said to rank amongst the likes of Pennebaker and Wiseman. Josh’s wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) acts as a producer for her father’s work whilst Josh prefers to be left alone, working away on his mammoth six hour epic that he boldly claims to ‘be about America!’ – in all its scale, history and significance. He has been working on it for ten years.
Unable to have children, Josh and Cornelia begin to feel alienated from their core group of friends who are off having children whilst proudly preaching about how they now feel like proper adults and that the life they live has now, and only now, acquired meaning. In early scenes Josh and Cornelia laugh off their friends’ lives as parents, arguing instead that they are the ones with the better deal; they are free to travel, be spontaneous and keep up their sex life, although none of these things ever get past the level of discussion. Something is missing.
This changes when two young, adventurous free spirits enter Josh and Cornelia’s lives. Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) come along to a higher education class on documentary film-making which Josh is half-heartedly giving to earn some money for his main project. Jamie, a huge fan of Josh’s work and a documentary film-maker himself, strikes up a conversation (with a social ease that baffles the older man), enticing him and Cornelia to join the younger couple for dinner. A friendship blossoms and soon enough Josh and Cornelia have recaptured something of their youthful spirit, tagging along with their younger counterparts to street parties, hip-hop dance classes and quirky artisan restaurants.
Here is where Baumbach’s comedic talent really comes across: documenting the culture clash between the middle-aged, straight-laced Josh and the alternative ‘hipster’ lifestyle which both equally entices and confuses him. Josh’s mid-life crisis is aesthetic but not flashy; he buys a trilby hat, not a sports car. Baumbach is intelligent enough to decorate his character with these touches without such ornamentation becoming clichéd or forced. The writer-director also showcases his balanced approach towards the film’s comedy. Just as Josh is won over by Jamie and Darby’s appreciation of both high and low culture – ‘it’s Jay-Z, it’s Thin Lizzy, it’s Mozart. His taste is democratic!’ – there is something to be admired in the film’s balance between witty cultural references often played for comic or ironic effect and its more universal implementation of slapstick, mid-life crisis gags and even cruder moments of bodily function comedy (the foursome take part in a new age ceremony which asks its participants to expel the demons from their body by vomiting).
Equally admirable is the fact that Baumbach clearly knows how to shape the flow and movement of his story. When the novelty of watching Stiller struggling down the street on a retro bicycle or Watts dancing to hip-hop begins to wear off, Baumbach never lingers or allows himself to beat the dead horse of his own comedy inventions. As the film moves onwards its dramatic core begins to take more of hold: the main source of drama being the progression of Jamie’s own documentary project, which Josh helps to get off the ground. Eventually, Josh and Jamie begin to confront each other over the ethics of documentary film-making and, soon enough, Jamie’s motives for making his film are called into question. This leads to a finale which refuses to succumb to the conventional ‘Hollywood’ conclusion many would perhaps expect (which is for this reason all the more refreshing).
Above all, the film highlights how brilliant Stiller can be when he dials his usual comedy persona back, but While We’re Young also effortlessly showcases the comedic talent of each of its principal actors, all interwoven into a story which is both humorous and poignant.