Noah Baumbach is old school. His films aren’t playing at a theater near you, because they’re not for you. He writes and directs his way, on his terms. Quirky characters abound. Offbeat plots are the standard. Members of a younger generation might call him pretentious. They may even have an opinion on where to stick his 35mm print. That’s precisely what While We’re Young is about. Ironically, it’s his most accessible film to date.
Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are New Yorkers plagued with mid-life questions. They wonder if they should have had a baby. They wonder why their careers didn’t go according to plan. They wonder if there’s more to be discovered out there, somewhere, just around the corner. In walks Jami and Darby – the hippest couple this side of the Hudson. They’re spontaneous. They’re organic. They remind Josh and Cornelia of everything they’ve always wanted to be. They’re almost too good to be true. Maybe they are.
Fresh and Alive
This script is a breath of fresh air. Baumbach provides hilarious commentary on our current state of affairs, ranging from the cult of parenthood to Facebook. He’s not cynical, just honest. My favorite line comes when the two couples are sitting around trying to think of a word to describe something. Josh instantly reaches for his phone to look it up, but Jami stops him. “Let’s just not know,” he says. Josh and Cornelia find out the answer later, and they’re ecstatic. The word means more to them than it ever would have had they relied on Google. Maybe there’s more knowledge to be gained from not knowing.
The potent script is aided by a lively cast. This is classic Ben Stiller. He’s funny, but grounded. I prefer when Stiller transforms into an actual character, like in another Baumbach feature Greenberg. But he works well here as the centerpiece. Still, nothing can top Adam Driver as Jami. He runs away with the movie. His comedy timing and delivery are perfect, but he also has the dramatic chops later when deeper insights are revealed. His energy is the heart beat of the film.
Three generations are represented. Jamie and Darby in their 20’s, Josh and Cornelia in their 40’s, and Cornelia’s father Leslie in his 60’s. How do these three generations see each other and themselves? The answers presented in the film are honest and insightful.
All three generations have things to learn from each other. Josh and Cornelia are smitten by Jami and Darby because they’ve refused to settle. If they want something, they go for it. They’re unhindered by the “practicalities” that keep adults from pursuing their dreams.
But Jami and Darby have things to learn from their older cohorts too. There’s wisdom to be found in choosing a path and knowing what you believe. Young people want to try out everything. They hate being pinned down by a labels. But without direction, you’re rudderless, and that’s the way to shipwreck.
The three generations also have plenty to reject in each other. Once the honeymoon phase is over, we start to see the true Jami and Darby. Their originality is really a cobbled together mirage of stolen ideas. Josh accuses Jami of acting like an imitation of a sincere person he saw once. Jami and Darby are everything, and they’re nothing. They also have a manipulative streak. They’ve been told they can be anything they want to be, but they’re not willing to invest in the process. They want the fastest path to results. What else can we expect from a generation raised on instant gratification?
Finding What Matters
In the end, the cry of the film is to be content. There will always be a tendency to romanticize the young or old, but we need to discover the beauty of growing up one season at a time. Life is hard at every age. No one is exempt. And whether we’re 20, 40, or 60 our calling is the same: love God and love our neighbor. This is a mission unaffected by pimples, wrinkles, or arthritis. Josh actually gets diagnosed with arthritis at one point. He can’t believe it. “Arthritis arthritis?” he asks. The doctor responds, “I usually only say it once.”
What While We’re Young fails to do is find a consistent tone. The first hour is perfect. Then, a plot kicks in that derails the observational pacing, culminating in a climactic scene that feels like it belongs in a different movie. Had the film maintained the breezy blend of comedy and drama from the first half, it could have scaled the heights to true greatness.
Thankfully, Baumbach redeems himself in the final scenes. The last shot of the film is genius. A baby sits in an airport terminal playing with an iPhone. The baby opens apps randomly and twirls the phone in his hands. This is the next generation. A generation spoon fed on technology. Things could get messy fast.
But While We’re Young reminds us of something important. Every generation matters because people matter. Yes, these newcomers will have their shortcomings, perhaps more than any generation before them. But they too will have things to teach us. We need to be willing to learn from them, just as we hope they will learn from us. After all, as Josh says about Jami – they’re not evil, just young.