In Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg, Ivan (Rhys Ifan) borrows from It’s a Wonderful Life by noting, “youth is wasted on the young”. Ever the optimist, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) goes one step further and bemoans that “life is wasted on the living”. That’s about as macabre as Noah Baumbach gets, where the director, now in his mid-forties, seems to be scaling back his sad-sack sensibilities. His previous film, Frances Ha, was a delicate illustration of a woman emerging from her arrested development and embracing adulthood. And his new film, While We’re Young, a workout in millennial jabs, is Baumbach’s most broadly humorous film ever. Yet in this film about forty-something’s losing their edge, one can’t help but see it translate to Baumbach’s sensibilities, where the director’s once microscopic concerns of age, matrimony, and relationships are so readily visible to the naked eye.
Josh (Ben Stiller) is a college professor and documentarian stuck on the same project for the past decade. Married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), the couple, in their forties, are stuck in a rut – their friends are preoccupied with their newborn and with Josh stuck in a creative and fiscal limbo, the sense that this couple is in need of spontaneity is apparent. Enter Darby and Jamie (Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver). Sitting in on one of Josh’s classes, the young couple offers to take Josh and Cornelia out for dinner. Hitting it off, Josh is impressed from the start: Darby and Jamie’s cordialness and frightening lack of anxiety is exactly the kind of shake-up he needs. And with Jamie, an aspiring documentarian, looking to Josh for advice, it’s the sort of relationship that Josh is happy to oblige.
Baumbach emphasizes the dichotomy between genders and age in broadly funny ways. Josh and Cornelia are practical and rational people – when confronted with a question they do not have the answer to, they look to their phones. In the film’s most hilarious bit, it’s Darby and Jamie who denounce this technological dependence, positing that the foursome should try to remember the answer. The four sit uncomfortably, all trying to remember something that’s a Google search away.
Unfortunately, there are other, somewhat less successful observations that Baumbach makes, notably in the physical dichotomy between millennials and forty-somethings that ultimately feels like the director is playing to a crowd rather than actively having anything to say. This is evidenced by sequences involving the quartet retching ad nausem in a cultish communal experiment or Naomi Watts’ Cornelia flailing in a hip-hop dance studio. These are absurdist low points that relinquish While We’re Young’s attuned satire with something more cruelly cynical.
Yet the film’s other major preoccupation, the authenticity of documentary filmmaking and the borrowing of ideas from generation to generation, never quite feels fully formed. It’s the most intriguing idea that Baumbach tinkers with and the dramatic centerpiece that the picture’s humor pivots around. Though as I step back from the film, one can’t help but be impressed by the layers at play - from its intergenerational and gender satire, technological commentary, and ethics of filmmaking– but there’s no sense of harmony shared among these ideas. As the picture accepts a series of forced contrivances to see its narrative through, one can’t help but feel the whole enterprise quake at its core. What’s this film really about, anyway? In one of the more amusing recurring jokes of the film, we see Josh attempt to describe his decade long Shoah-esque project, topping off his diatribe by saying that it’s “really about America”; a fitting way of describing something so indescribably messy.