I have a love/hate relationship with Noah Baumbach. Like Woody Allen, he puts “real life” on display in uncomfortable, often brutal detail. Except his “reality” is alien to me: highly articulate artists living in the Village, alternately discussing their latest novel/film/ballet and sexually-liberated exploits. The Squid And The Whale, like Manhattan, initially drove me crazy. I hated every one of those beautifully-framed, entitled brats and their droll, New York City “problems.” But something changed on second viewing: the specifics still felt opaque, but something universal glimmered through the cracks. Made more beautiful, somehow, by the fact that I could barely access it. Empathy is best when it’s fought for, and even if I don’t always get there — I loved Frances Ha for her obvious flaws, hated Greenberg for his — there’s always something interesting in the struggle.
That struggle is totally absent in While We’re Young — it’s easy to like from the get-go. The film is effectively Baumbach’s riff on This Is Forty: Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and Josh (a remarkably good Ben Stiller) are a childless married couple grappling with the stasis of middle age. Or maybe middle-middle-age: not free enough to be hipsters but too restlessly self-aware to be yuppies, they’re stranded. Their peers, Baby Bjorn-adorn and bobbing to nightmarish sing-a-longs, have sacrificed Personhood to the idol of Parenthood. Meanwhile, the new generation (hilariously played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) is lawless: they hike through subway tracks, throw “beach parties” in the street, wear post-post-post-ironic tees, and drop ayahuasca with Shamans and Spotify Radio. Baumbach mines keen observations and laughs from all sides: it’s the funniest, and most accessible, he’s ever been. Even when the jokes don’t land, you really want them to.
Tonally, it’s standard indie fare: charming leads, witty dialogue, lows played for laughs and quickly resolved. But, like plenty of comedy, there’s a certain sadness to it. Josh and Cornelia aren’t really stranded, because neither side actually exists: they’re cultivated fantasies. Everyone is stuck somewhere, and no journey towards self-acceptance can change that. Whether they numb it with smartphones they pretend to hate or vintage kitsch they pretend to love; run from it in sockless loafers or belittle it with faux-weary acceptance; fuel it with sharp-elbowed egotism or wear “selflessness” like armor — nobody nails the landing. It’s clichéd, but personal: you can just feel Baumbach tearing down his younger pretensions and grown-up sentiment, brazen and giddy. But it’s not clear he’s found anything real to replace it with…or that he was even particularly interested in looking. Confronted with the void, he shrugs and rolls credits.
While We’re Young is a good movie: it’s clever, fun, and well worth the price of admission. I just wish it’d put up more of a fight.