Movie review: ‘While We’re Young’ is a thought-provoking comedy-drama
It takes awhile to figure out if “While We’re Young” is a comedy or a drama. It’s very funny, with some of the laughs coming from the sharp dialogue, others coming from the perfectly timed delivery of it. But it also takes on serious themes, about getting older and realizing that youth has slipped away, about the (in this script’s case) not-so-subtle differences between aging and maturing. OK, so it’s both, a comedy and a drama.
In a career that’s so far given us such varied movies as “The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg” and “Frances Ha,” it’s easily writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most accessible piece of work. It will still be recognized as more of a small art house film than a mainstream one, but it’s likely going to have – and deserves – a wider audience than anything he’s made before.
Baumbach re-teams with Ben Stiller, who had the title role in “Greenberg,” now playing Josh, a once-promising documentary filmmaker who finds himself in a career rut while trying to make his second film, and in a personal one with his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), when they suddenly realize that, deep into their 40s, their life together has become, one of them says, “eventless.” Part of the problem is that Josh’s endlessly bogged-down film is taking up so much time, and part is because their friends have had or are having babies, but they’re not. This is causing a rift, not between the two of them, but between them and their friends.
Doesn’t sound very funny? There’s lightness and brightness right around the corner. In his little spare time, Josh lectures on documentary filmmaking. One day a young married couple who are auditing his talk (well, sneaking in to hear him speak) introduce themselves. They’re the extremely free-spirited Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Soon, Josh and Cornelia aren’t thinking much about their old(er) friends because these two 20somethings have kind of glommed onto them and invited them to hang out, to be part of their lives, to maybe regain some of their own lost youth via symbiosis. Or maybe Jamie, also a budding documentary filmmaker, wants a mentor.
Initially it’s Josh who more intrigued by this young couple, or really by the excitable Jamie (Driver keeps letting loose with the goofy phrase “Jeez, Louise” whenever he discovers something), and it’s Jamie who brings Josh around town with the idea of making him more hip by helping him buy a hat and a bicycle. But it doesn’t take long for the initially stand-offish Cornelia to warm up to Darby after Darby takes her to a hip-hop dance class.
It’s fun to watch the changes the almost-middle-aged couple goes through, but there are niggling little things getting in the way to remind them that there’s another reality to deal with. Josh has a couple of doctor appointments and discovers that it’s time to get glasses, and that those annoying pains are early signs of arthritis. Cornelia, finding Josh getting caught up in the other couple’s lifestyle, confesses to him, “I wish you’d look at me the way you look at them.”
Serious and funny, all mixed together. And those moods keep tugging each other back and forth as more and more about the characters is revealed, and other characters are introduced. It’s clear to see it’s Josh’s fault that he doesn’t exactly get along with Leslie (Charles Grodin), his father-in-law, who happens to be a respected filmmaker. And there are few questions as to why Josh’s current documentary project is stalling once we meet its extremely uncharismatic subject, a philosopher named Ira (wonderfully played by Peter Yarrow, who once sang with a couple of folks named Paul and Mary).
The best thing about the film is that every performance is a good one (something I’ve never said about Seyfried). But just as much praise must be given to Baumbach for a script that’s so genuine, and is packed with characters talking about subjects and feelings that most of us would be afraid to get into. Even better, Baumbach and his actors get us to believe certain things about some of those characters, who then turn around and are seen to be something else. Some mean well, some are manipulators. There’s a lot of thought-provoking stuff to be found amidst the laughs. In the end, the movie is about discovering who you really are, or at least who you could be.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
WHILE WE’RE YOUNG
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
With Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin