Movie Review: “While We’re Young”

Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin
Noah Baumbach

After “Frances Ha” and Noah Baumbach’s upcoming film, “Mistress America,” it felt safe to assume the writer-director had taken on a new demeanor, because there’s a joy to those films rarely seen in his past work. As it turns out, it was wrong to presume that he was done with his days of making audiences squirm, because that side of Baumbach has returned with a vengeance. “While We’re Young” is perhaps the filmmaker’s most unpleasant picture to date, and that’s a compliment.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a happily married couple. They’re comfortable with the choices they’ve made, including not having kids, but they begin to question those choices when they see the family their friends have built and, especially, after they meet a young and overly hip couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). The two youngsters are wild and free, which is a lifestyle Josh and Cornelia attempt to emulate. The middle-aged couple begins to feel young again, thanks to some funky hats and hip hop dance classes, but his fantasy doesn’t last too long, as the older couple begins to realize that maybe this isn’t how people their age should be acting.

“While We’re Young” is a mix of the old and new Baumbach. It’s as cringe-inducing as his early work, but it’s also as accessible as “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America.” The film is filled to the brim with jokes and awkwardly comedic scenarios, almost to the point of exhaustion. Baumbach has recently exhibited a strong eye for pacing; he’s telling his stories with a faster pace, without ever making them contrived, rushed or any less human. His recent work is as driven by story as it is by character, and Baumbach balances the two rather nicely.

More than that, he somehow finds a way to tell the same story again and again, without ever blatantly retreading or recycling material. Most of Baumbach’s characters had a roadmap for how they wanted their lives to shake out, but the reality never matches their dreams. They have to accept the way things are to make the best of things. Each time out, Baumbach sheds new light on this journey, finding new ways to explore it, both comedically and dramatically.

If there’s something missing from “While We’re Young” that you’ll find in Baumbach’s past films, it’s a well-rounded ending. There’s something muddled about the final exchange between Josh and Cornelia. Josh says something so naïve that one wonders whether he’s really learned that much. The character is a bit oblivious – and, to be fair, the broad statement he makes is subtle compared to his past behavior – but at first glance, his arc has been undermined or thrown off in exchange for a joke, albeit a very funny one. Perhaps Josh hasn’t progressed and, in some regard, is still very young. Whatever the case, it’s not as resonant or as impactful as the rest of the film.

Baumbach’s stories are often strangely optimistic. The writer-director shows that people can change, no matter their age or their predicament. Baumbach tends to leave things on a hopeful – and more importantly, honest – note. The characters in “While We’re Young” are easy to root for, too, courtesy of a charming script and some endearing performances from Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts.