Review: “While We’re Young”

On the surface, While We’re Young is the story of Josh and Cornelia, a middle-aged couple played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, who form a bond with Jamie and Darby, a younger couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) – and the subsequent dynamics of their collective lives. Dig a little deeper, and it becomes a surprisingly candid, humorous and thought-provoking reflection on middle age that’s well-executed by writer and director Noah Baumbach. Baumbach’s quiet popularity has grown in recent years, thanks in no small part to his success on the festival circuit. While We’re Young first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2014, after which it was picked up by A24 (fresh off DirecTV collaborations Slow West and Enemy) for wider release. The film’s deft portrayal of youth and ageing will surely strike a chord in audience members, wherever they are in life.

The plot begins when Josh, having just wrapping up a lecture, is approached by Jamie, a self-proclaimed fan of his work, and Darby, who invite Josh and his wife out to dinner. Eventually, the couples’ lives intertwine, leading Josh to realize that he may be missing out on some of the joys of his youth. The subplot involving both men’s struggle to earn recognition for their documentary work sets up a secondary theme involving the generational differences when it comes to achieving success that leads to an ultimate realization as the film progresses.

Baumbach, who previously wrote Stiller’s 2010 comedy-drama Greenberg, does a better job of adding depth to the characters this time around by effectively using contrasting visuals to illustrate differences between the two couples. He makes an effort to realistically portray some of the struggles couples face at that stage of life, with a touch of irreverent humor thrown in for good measure. For the most part, he succeeds by making effective use of universal concerns faced by many middle-aged couples who, without realizing it, have slipped into a predictable life that’s slowly becoming devoid of the exuberance of youth.

In some ways, elements of While We’re Young echo those first presented in Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach’s debut film. Where Kicking and Screaming sees a group of friends beginning their young adult lives with trepidation, While We’re Young almost serves to follow up on those characters, checking in to see if life turned out as they thought it would. Both films also present a barrage of sight gags and witty one-liners, most of which come off as thoroughly entertaining. A similar theme can be seen in Baumbach’s Frances Ha, another picture that seeks to capture the ephemeral nature of youth. In that film, Frances Halliday, a dancer just out of college, pirouettes her way between apartments and awkward social encounters, determining herself to be completely “undateable.” Greta Gerwig plays the role while seeming to channel the spirit of an Annie Hall-era Diane Keaton.

Baumbach has been slowly making his way into the mainstream since the mid-90s, frequently working the film festival circuit. The New York-native has also dabbled in animation, having written the screenplays for Fantastic Mr. Fox and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. He has subsequently earned a reputation for skewing and embracing the East Coast elite in many of his films, often blending comedy with dramatic elements à la Woody Allen. The director has an innate ability to explore the complexities of the motivations people have for doing what they do in both romantic and professional relationships, having previously drawn from his personal experience with childhood divorce in The Squid and the Whale. Here, he delightfully puts his perspective on toeing the line between blissful immaturity and self-realization to good use.

Whether it’s watching as Stiller hilariously experiences youthful “pleasures” such as hip-hop dancing classes and trendy hats, or picking up on subtle jabs at the growing Millennial Generation, the film is successful because it never really goes where it looks like it’s heading. Aside from the fact that Charles Grodin, as Stiller’s father-in-law, is woefully under-utilized and the third act occasionally slips into formula to set up the ending, there aren’t any major complaints with the film worth mentioning. While We’re Young caps what’s considered something of a loose trilogy of Baumbach films that started with Greenberg and continued with Frances Ha, serving as a decent feather in the cap of a filmmaker who’s made a habit of exploring the complexities of relationships with a mix of humor and enlightenment.

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