'While We’re Young:' Is 40 Really That Old?

Filmmaker Noah Baumbach has made some terrific movies about characters in crisis, but his latest comedy-drama gets lost on its search for creative and human truth.

Uri Klein
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From 'While We’re Young.'
From 'While We’re Young.' Credit: Jon Pack
Uri Klein

While We’re Young Written and directed by Noah Baumbach; with Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin

Noah Baumbach is one of the few American directors today who, like the comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, is not afraid of words. People in Baumbach’s movies talk, and they talk a lot; often, that is almost all they do. Baumbach writes his own screenplays, and precise, often witty, dialogue has become one of his trademarks. Over the past 20 years, he has made chamber pieces about characters in crisis, often frustrated artists and intellectuals (or rather, pseudo-intellectuals), grappling with the success or failure of their lives.

Since Baumbach aims to capture the consciousness of his heroes and maybe to observe it from afar, his movies are often as confused as his protagonists, and as seemingly unstructured as the lives they lead. When his attempts to do this, and the conflicting components they require, come together with an emotional and conceptual clarity, the result can be brilliant – as in “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and “Frances Ha” (2012). In other cases – “Margot at the Wedding” (2007) or “Greenberg” (2010) – Baumbach’s work can become vague.

His latest movie falls into the latter category. Although there is much to enjoy here, it ultimately lacks focus, and the tone drifts off into the realms of the unresolved and unsatisfying.

“While We’re Young” focuses on two married couples. Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are in their forties. He’s a filmmaker who has spent the last decade working on a documentary about financial and political power in America. She’s the daughter of Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a legendary documentary filmmaker (a fact that allows Baumbach to mention such celebrated directors as Frederick Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers – whom most Americans have probably never heard of – as well as Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, all attesting to the elitism that Baumbach has never shied away from). Cornelia produces her father’s films, while Josh, who wishes to follow in his father-in-law’s footsteps, treats him with a combination of worship and hostility.

One of the film’s problems is that we don’t know what it thinks of Josh the artist (and Ben Stiller’s performance doesn’t help matters). Is Josh the kind of person who could actually make a serious documentary about power in America? Probably not. But is that what the film intends us to think? Also unclear. As a result, we’re unsure how to regard Josh; not knowing this leaves a gaping void at the film’s core. The film’s satirical intent is also unclear.

New friendship

Josh and Cornelia, who seem to live comfortably together, feel that their youth is fast departing and life is passing them by. They have no children; Cornelia has had several miscarriages. When a couple to whom they are close have a baby, the friendship collapses.

They grow even farther apart from their former friends when they meet another couple: Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who are in their mid-20s. Jamie is an aspiring filmmaker who looks up to Josh and reveres Cornelia’s father; Darby makes ice cream using unconventional ingredients.

Josh and Cornelia are swept into this new friendship (Josh with great enthusiasm, Cornelia in a more reserved way), charmed by Jamie and Darby’s youth and carefree existence. Spending time together allows the older couple to feel they are still young themselves, but it also makes them confront their own disappointments and missed opportunities.

Jamie, too, is an enigma. It’s not clear what the movie makes of him, or what we are supposed to think. He seems trapped in a permanent set of intellectual mannerisms, spouting endless nonsense about the relationship between truth and fiction in documentaries, and in art more generally. But behind the posturing, we can also detect a calculated resolve; unlike Josh, we might deduce, Jamie would never spend a decade working on a movie he could never finish.

This contradiction within Jamie’s character propels the movie toward its ending, which stages a conflict between the characters and between different approaches to the question of truth in documentaries. This part of the movie seems contrived. Even worse, it seems shallow – which only makes us wonder again precisely what we are supposed to think of the two male protagonists.

One of the odd things about “While We’re Young,” which may be a reflection of the United States today, is that people in their forties already consider themselves old; they feel like has-beens, soon to be replaced by a younger generation – a fact that triggers Josh and Cornelia’s anxiety and hostility toward their new friends.

In general, the movie’s attitude toward young people is vague. Baumbach captured youthful existence sympathetically in his debut feature, “Kicking and Screaming” (1995). And later, in “The Squid and the Whale,” he offered a sensitive, intelligent account of how a teenage boy and his younger brother respond to a family crisis. Baumbach is now 45 – that is, about the same age as Josh and Cornelia. Does the movie express his own fear of the younger generation as represented by Jamie and Darby, and which the film treats with a somewhat hostile critical edge?

Implausible, even ludicrous

There are some good scenes in “While We’re Young,” especially those small, intimate moments that demonstrate Baumbach’s skill in characterization and dialogue. The movie fails when it tries to broaden these scenes with more extravagant events, making Josh and Cornelia less believable. At times, the way in which they are swept into Jamie and Darby’s world borders on the implausible, even ludicrous.

In the movie’s weakest scene, the four go to a “spiritual” gathering where, led by an obvious charlatan, they drink a hallucinogen and spend the rest of the evening vomiting, in order to “cleanse” their insides. Not only does the event last too long, but its satirical barbs are too obvious. As troubled as Josh and Cornelia are with their lives, and as appealing as they may find Darby and Jamie, it’s hard to believe they would actually go through with such an ordeal.

Women play a smaller part in the movie than the men, but Watts and Seyfried do their jobs well, within the limitations of the screenplay. Driver, despite the vagueness of his character, manages to be comic and believable. And it is a pleasure to once more see Grodin, whose cool, authoritative presence is one of the movie’s virtues. By contrast, the always problematic Stiller is caught inside his unfocused character and fumbles his way through its limitations.

Baumbach’s intelligence and uniqueness are evident in “While We’re Young.” On the whole, though, the movie seems like it got lost on its search for some creative and human truth. The elusiveness of truth is indeed one of the movie’s themes, but Baumbach’s attempt to explore it through a story that also has an emotional dimension got away from him. While interesting and intermittently amusing, the result has too many problems to become a complete, satisfying experience.