Most men buy a cherry red Corvette when they hit their midlife crisis. They dye their hair back to black (speaking of, how has AC/DC never done a Clairol commercial?) and date 20-year old models (here’s looking at you Anthony Keidis). But not Noah Baumbach. The 46-year old independent filmmaker who hails from Brooklyn is all about taking his halfway point in the old game of life with a modest dose of thoughtful reflection. In his now trilogy of brusque analyses on postmodern youth, he has come to terms with the train of aging rather than running down the tracks from it.
In lieu of turning his cinematic gaze towards the many foibles of midlife-i-ness cris-i-sis – Ben Stiller‘s character though does suffer a bout of arthritis here; Baumbach acknowledging the inescapable pitfalls of aging – the hysterical and raw director has cast his net into shallower years, peering his telephoto lens towards smart-phoning, DIY-ing post-millennials; the peers of his muse and real-life love interest Greta Gerwig (who does not appear here; as an actor, writer or otherwise). With an outlook characterized by its salty mix of forlorn generational pity and perplexed but dutiful respect towards said youth, Baumbach reveals himself as more interested in gumption than grumbling and his film is able to meaningfully parse out the difference.
“Kids these days,” Baumbach waxes mostly bemused; half wanting to join in on the fun and half standing on the side lines and gazing down his navel. While We’re Young, Baumbach’s eighth film, is the product of a man who’s kinda figured out his place in life; who’s (generally) comes to terms with the cold art facts that riding a fixie in your 40s is suicide – or at least arthritis-inducing – and that locking and cocking a hip fedora does not necessarily make you a hipster (or hip.) In this cross-generational look at success and friendship, he inlays themes of familial loyalties and unbridled ambition with fitful comedic zest, earnest reflection and strong performances across the board. The result is yet another home run from a director apparently full of home runs.
Ben Stiller plays fortysomething Josh Srebnick, a once-promising documentarian whose second feature is ten years deep in development and – with a six-and-a-half-hour run-time described by Josh’s own honored documentarian father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin) as “seven hours too long” – is still without an end in sight. He’s very much Baumbach’s counterpoint to assertions made about the younger generation’s inbred absurdity. Sure youth are silly, but that doesn’t mean Gen-X has it all figured out (or anything figured out.) Ostensibly by chance, Josh meets freewheeling couple Jamie and Darby (respectively Adam Driver and an especially wide-eyed Amanda Seyfried) and is soon swept up in with their seemingly idyllic DIY lifestyle.
Having roped wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) into the gang, Josh takes up various activities of Jamie and his optionally-clad hipster clan. From making their own desks to spur-of-the-moment inter-state carpools to inner-city beach street parties, Josh and Cornelia get a taste of the fun they’ve not had for a long time. Their faux-spiritual revitalization climaxes during an ayahuasca trip that is funny-bone-shatteringly hilarious. But it’s not broad comedy that makes While We’re Young soar so much as the quiet, snarky remarks born of Baumbach’s tart script. Baumbach’s films have always thrived on snide, biting asides from the lips of acerbic characters but they’re funnier here than before. Displeased with his father-in-law’s rebuking his doc cut, Josh snaps of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, “I’m not eating another fried turkey!” and slams the door. Without wasting a beat, Leslie shoots back, “Then bring your own!” Baumbach’s caustic exchanges here are as zippy and fast flying as ever.
Stiller has long existed in the crossroads between his giggly Frat Pack comedies and a breed of soul-searching material the likes of Walter Mitty, The Royal Tenenbaums and Greenberg (also Baumbach) but this feels like perhaps his most honest to date. His disappointment is palpable and his pride is oft insurmountable. He’s a man nowhere near youth nor twilight who’s searching for something worth living – as in, really living – for. Watts, playing a momma-that-never-was, wrestles with her own demons, providing a subtle emotional fulcrum which the cast all circulate around.
Though she earned a surprise Screen Actor’s Guide Award for playing a pregnant Russian prostitute last year in St. Vincent, performances like this (paired with her oft over-looked but equally strong Birdman showing) boasts Watts’ true staying power. A scene where she quite literally sprints from a Wiggles-like concert for babies is one of the films highlights. For different reasons, Adam Driver shines. He’s partially douchey and partially popsicle cool but wholly flawed and wholly human; ticking another box on his impending superstardom. Even Seyfried – who I’ve often found to be grating in large doses – hones into a living, breathing human being.
Much of the success of the performances though rest with Baumbach’s writing. While We’re Young being a direct follow-up to Frances Ha, Baumbach has expanded on existing themes of unchecked 21st century youth – themes that he later blows up to staggering farcical effect with Mistress America – crafting together a twisted trilogy of sharp, intelligent and aimless New York youth. Without lover Gerwig in the crosshairs, Baumbach is able to get even more personal, using Stiller as a proxy for his own insecurities and breaking new ground poignantly and often. Though Josh asks, “What’s the opposite of the world’s your oyster?” Baumbach is dealing with quite the opposite question at this stage in his career.