Noah Baumbach seems like a smart enough filmmaker. While We’re Young has a lackluster premise that would have resulted in a horrible movie under an average director, so I’m willing to bet that it’s Baumbach’s intelligence that raises his latest film to merely “not good.” Mature but hackneyed in the same breath, While We’re Young avoids being either too shallow or too deep and ends up a poor way to spend 97 minutes, if we’re matching the strength of our criticism with the sense of passion we get from the work itself.
Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a married couple in their forties who are stuck in a holding pattern. Childless and with a love life on pause, they are feeling left behind by their friends who have all moved on to that next stage of married life. Josh is a professor and Cornelia is a film producer, but both have been unambitious for a long time; Josh has been working on the same documentary for the past ten years. Enter Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), an artistic married couple in their twenties, who introduce the older couple to the enthusiastic and hipsterish passions of modern youth.
If we’re being charitable, this plot could be described as bog standard. The “old people acting like young people” gag is a hallmark of uninspired, kid-oriented sitcoms. It is unsurprisingly stale here, even by way of a big indie name like Baumbach. To his credit, Baumbach is nothing if not earnest with his premise, refusing to stick to the low road when it comes to the either the movie’s comedy or its thematic concerns—which is not to say that he takes the high road either. The word hipster is dropped only once, for instance, but the movie is not without a montage of Jamie showing Josh what kind of awful hat and custom bike to buy.
While We’re Young wants to be a funny movie about generational differences and art without relying on every easy joke about Millennials—though it still ends up relying on some of them. The result is an iffy mix of stupid jokes told with no flair and the ho-hum filler about middle age that Baumbach would rather talk about. It’s competent, but “competent” should never be the best thing we can say about art. It’s a problem familiar to those of us who dislike New Yorker cartoons: stupid jokes robbed of their simple pleasures by artists who see themselves as above that kind of thing. The movie eventually says its part about generational attitudes towards the self, authenticity, and truth in art, but it takes 75 minutes of bland (albeit, not totally unfunny) jokes to get there.
For what it’s worth, While We’re Young focuses on this sort of midlife crisis from the vantage point of those having it, instead of the younger set who are appalled by it. That’s different enough, but it feels like the only part of the movie that is. Baumbach’s script simply doesn’t do the work to subvert the other conventions of his premise. What we have is a movie that even falls short of its modest ambitions in its overreliance on mediocre means. The low road would have at least made me feel something.
The acting is fine. Stiller and Watts are a believable couple, and Driver sells the weird charm of even the most obnoxious artsy twenty-something. The script is less than fine, but it has its moments. The forty-somethings converse in stageplay dialogue, each line coming on the heels of the last and each line slathered with Character and Meaning. It’s curious, but it’s also—just—fine. It’s as if the movie itself insists on being nothing worth talking about.
That is, until it suddenly says something worthwhile. In an 11th hour twist, Josh finds out that Jamie’s new documentary, a project he worked on, was based on a series of fake setups and outright lies. This realization disturbs Josh so deeply that he decides to confront Jamie in one of the movie’s few good scenes. It not only places Josh’s and Jamie’s ideas of ethics in storytelling at odds with each other, but also cuts between their debate and a speech being made one room over by Josh’s father-in-law, yet another documentarian from another generation. The movie’s a bit of a mess at this point, but it’s an undeniably effective one, at last presenting us with scenes that are about something important. It’s not just about age; it’s about the different generations, different societies, and different values that each of these artists represents.
Why, then, have the previous 75 minutes at all? The one prerequisite of this section is that Josh needed to trust Jamie, so, sure, the whole movie up to that point is setting us up for a deeper exploration of authenticity, truth, and self by having them come together in a way that signals the importance of such themes. That wasn’t the right part to pad out, though, to get the whole up to feature length. What we get is twenty good minutes prefaced by over an hour of fluff that can only look embarrassingly unimportant in retrospect. It is an even greater disappointment that Jaime and Josh’s wives, Cornelia and Darby, only exist to make the movie’s lesser section feel less lonely. By the time the real story kicks in, they’ve basically disappeared from a movie which had previously put in the effort to, at least, share the screen time.
There’s a good short sitting at the end of While We’re Young, but it’s not good enough to justify watching the weak feature-length lead-in. There’s simply not enough time to set any aside for the average or the OK, and as a whole that is lesser than the sum of its parts, While We’re Young doesn’t even get there. Yes, old people and young people are oh so different, but Baumbach doesn’t seem like the one to tell that story, smart as he is.
While We’re Young is playing now in select theaters.