Childless documentary filmmakers Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia Srebnick (Watts) are rejuvenated when they fall in with younger married couple Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried). Problems only begin to arise when Josh and Jamie start to collaborate on a new project.
While We’re Young opens with a quote from Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder warning about the dangers of opening the door to youth. Don’t run away. Funny, fizzy but with brainfood to chew on Noah Baumbach’s seventh feature film as a writer-director is far more entertaining than any film prefaced by a Norwegian playwright has any right to be. Baumbach deftly mixes modern relationship insights with a more classical screwball sensibility and comes up with a smart, engaging, generous treatise on the battle to stay engaged and alive in middle age.
In outline, While We’re Young is the sum of Baumbach’s previous two films put together. 2010’s Greenberg (with Stiller again) is a portrait of a middle-aged man heading into crisis. 2012’s Frances Ha concerns a slacker not quite sure what to do with her life. Here, Baumbach throws the two generations into the mix together and revels in the clash of energies, pop cultures and expectations. It has echoes of other relationship comedy-dramas — the two couples dynamic, documentary filmmaking sub-plot and Vivaldi on the soundtrack feel very Woody Allen — but Baumbach not only finds his own voice but hits a higher gag rate than Allen has in years.
Early doors, Baumbach sketches a marriage in stasis in swift, sharp strokes. Childless couple Josh and Cornelia Srebnick feel ill equipped to have kids — Josh would read his baby Stephen King’s The Tommy Knockers — and their plans are held hostage to the epic political documentary Josh has been toiling on for ten years. “It’s “a six-and-a-half-hour film that’s seven hours too long,” says his celebrated documentarian father-in-law played with tetchy delight by Charles Grodin. Things take an upturn when they run into young married couple Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried) after Josh’s lecture. He is an aspirant filmmaker. She makes ice cream. Losing his Girls edge, Driver is all gangly affability and infectious openness. Seyfried, while she is the most under-developed of the foursome, registers with a big eyed optimism. Together they are a dream. You’d be friends with these two, whatever your age.
This is where While We’re Young really takes off. Baumbauch sketches the generational gap in unexpected ways, the oldies using MacBooks, Netflix and playlists trying desperately to keep their fingers on the pulses, the hipsters kicking it old school with typewriters vinyl and steadfastly refuse Google in order to discover who directed The Goonies. Baumbach is generous to both sides but errs towards Josh and Cordelia. This is a film about being exhilarated by the passion and freshness of youth, if ultimately that energy and courage is both daunting and threatening.
For as Jamie’s documentary film starts to take off — his idea to connect with an old friend on Facebook and then talk to them in person is a neat parody of bullshit non-fiction formats — Josh’s petty resentments and jealousies begin to come to the fore. Baumbach has been good for Stiller. Josh may not have the neurotic self-absorption of Roger Greenberg but he feels more real and affecting here than in Stiller’s mainstream work. It is to his credit that the higher the moral ground Josh takes, the more obnoxious he becomes yet you are still on side. He also achieves a nice easy-going chemistry with Watts who is on better, more relatable form here than she’s been for ages.
How this all develops takes plot twists and turns that are unusual in Baumbach’s work. Not all of it comes off. A set piece that sees Josh and Cordelia go on a hippie retreat and puke to the Love Theme From Blade Runner feels over the top and ill-judged. But for the most part Baumbach’s taste is in check. This may lack the beauty of Frances Ha but Baumbach wraps it in a bright attractive look with a soundtrack that runs from something for the fortysomethings (David Bowie) and something for the twentysomethings (Haim). And, of course, those prepared to blur the difference.
Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is the best Woody Allen film of 2015. A fast, funny, smart take on generational jealousy, with Ben Stiller and Adam Driver on great form.