Malaise of various kinds has manifested itself in the work of American director Noah Baumbach. In 2012, the much adored Frances Ha saw the director chronicle the ailing dance career and resultant ennui of an arrested development twenty-something whilst gently ribbing consciously cool New Yorkers. His new picture, While We’re Young (2014), explores both professional stagnation and sends up trendy hipster culture through a more traditional mid-life crisis narrative. Providing a further through line between the films is Adam Driver who stars alongside Amanda Seyfried, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in a film that talks about getting old and artistic integrity while keeping the laughs plentiful.
Stiller is the best he’s been for some time as filmmaker Josh. A promising start to his career has given way to the mire of a turgid six-hour opus that he describes differently each time he speaks about it (“it’s about America”, he defaults). He and wife Cornelia (Watts) are childless and outwardly happy, after all, it’s the freedom to do anything that matters, not what you do with it. As friends keep trying to pressurise them into the cult of baby, they suddenly find a revitalising fix of spontaneity and joie de vivre through Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried). Soon, Josh and Cornelia are attending hip-hop dance classes and Ayahuasca ceremonies. Baumbach highlights the generational differences – “it’s like their apartment, young is full of stuff we threw out” – as the older pair become more enamoured with their new friends.
Darby makes homemade artisan ice cream in flavours such as avocado, while Jamie wows Josh with his vinyl and VHS collections. Their boho lifestyle provokes something in Josh and Cornelia but it’s when Jamie seeks advice from Cornelia’s famous documentarian father, Leslie (Charles Grodin), on his own film that cracks begin to show in the previously blemish free generosity of spirit. Without dropping the comedy ball for a minute, While We’re Young changes tack and begins to adroitly explore separate age groups’ diverging attitudes towards not only life but also authenticity and ownership, particularly in this age of the internet and social media. Driver and Stiller perfectly encapsulate those two outlooks, and events turn sour as Josh sets out to sabotage and discredit the project of his friend and would-be-protégé.
The irony of the fact that our protagonist aims to do this at a dinner for Leslie – the revered director whose daughter Josh once married – is lost on nobody except, maybe, Josh. Neither female character is quite as strongly written, but Watts in particular has a likable chemistry with Stiller that convinces and she is certainly capable of landing a punch line. And that, ultimately, is why While We’re Young works so well. Baumbach is never likely to make a film that doesn’t engage with interesting issue, but on this occasion he’s made something smart and relevant that really brings the funny, arguably making this his most widely appealing film to date.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson