When Noah Baumbach made his directorial debut, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, he became a strong voice for the generation of disaffected liberal arts intellectuals trying to find their way through the world after graduating from college. He returned to the character type in projects like The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg and Frances Ha, showing a clear predilection for the evolution of Generation X throughout the years. With his newest film, While We’re Young, Baumbach returns to this character type again, twenty years after the release of Kicking and Streaming, looking at what happens when those intellectual bohemians reach middle age.
Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentarian struggling to complete the follow-up to his little seen but critically acclaimed first film. His wife is Cornelia (Naomi Watts), who works with her father Leslie (a remarkably elderly Charles Grodin, playing a notably more famous documentarian) to produce his projects. Teaching a class at an extension school, Josh is approached by a young man, Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who -profess themselves to be fans of his work. Jamie and Darby are the freest of spirits, living an idealized, bohemian lifestyle full of art and creativity, the sort of joy from living life that Josh and Cornelia seem to have lost, especially as their closest friends (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz) have become new parents and found increasingly less time to be social. Josh and Cornelia are energized by their new, younger friends and their impulsive outlook on life, retreating into youth and vibrancy while their friends of their age have fully embraced adult life.
For the most part, Baubach has aged alongside his protagonists, making While We’re Young his clearest take on the mid-life crisis age of Generation X. Much of the conflict of the film comes from the sense that they are somewhat of a lost generation, sandwiched between the can-do hard working Baby Boomer attitude of those who came before (Grodin’s character) and the less traditionalist, blunter millennial hipster culture (Driver’s character). Josh wants aspects of both, the success and admiration Leslie receives and the carefree attitude of Jamie, but regardless of how comfortable he becomes around Jamie and Darby, he knows he is little more than an interloper in their midst. This may sound a little dark, and like all Baumbach movies it certainly has its fair share of despair, but here he cuts through the neuroses with a healthy dollop of zany, almost slapstick humor, much of which is visual in nature.
Quite a bit of the humor in While We’re Young is arguably a bit of a departure for Baumbach, a writer who almost exclusively generated laughs purely from dialogue in his previous directorial work. This is not to say witty dialogue does not also reign supreme, as it surely does, but this film strikes more of a broad balance than his previous work. The subject matter, the lightness and the approach to comedy all told make this almost certainly Baumbach’s most accessible film to date, leaving the door open for this to be his biggest hit. While it may be the case that the film’s interest in the nuts and bolts of documentary filmmaking and financing may lose some, he keeps everything moving at a breezy, relaxed pace and punches it all up with rat-a-tat dialogue. The way it cuts across three generations gives Baumbach plenty of ammunition to lampoon, though he makes sure never to reduce any of his characters to pure caricature.
It is certainly not devoid of conflict though, as Josh and Cornelia are still Baumbach characters at their core. From Josh’s insistence on being a self-made man despite access to one of the world’s most respected members of his field at his fingertips to Cornelia’s hang-ups regarding starting a family thanks to her advancing age and previous miscarriages, as well as their increasingly children-focused friends. Eventually, Baumbach settles on a central clash surrounding a documentary Jamie is working on that may or may not be designed on the most morally sound of grounds. This event dominates the proceedings of the third act of While We’re Young, and while it has clear implications for Josh’s character, what he considers important and what he considers right in a world that appears to be increasingly passing him by, it also marks a tonal shift that never entirely settles into a groove. It would be unfair to say the film loses its way, because what Baumbach is doing makes sense in the grand scheme of his plan and where he wants his characters to go, but it does feel like it could have been executed with more grace than it is.
As Noah Baumbach advances in age, it makes sense that his subjects would follow suit. He has remarked that his films are not actively autobiographical but remain personal, and that continues to be the case here. He is buoyed by his four principals, all of them game and excelling at comic timing. Driver is a particular standout, adding another strong performance to his arsenal, though Stiller more than capable of being the film’s true lead. It features a third act that does not entirely live up to its first two, which feel almost entirely without flaws, and it feels a tad more scattershot than other Baumbach films, but even an ultimately more minor Noah Baumbach film has quite a bit to say. As he continues to evolve as a filmmaker, he is still more than capable of entertaining his audience.