There are many reasons why While We’re Young, the latest from director Noah Baumbach is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, but the most important is that it seems the director has found a way to revitalize his career by experimenting with format. I was a little bit surprised when his Frances Ha ended up conjuring the anarchic freedom of the french new wave is more ways than just its black and white photography, and if While We’re Young is any indication, Baumbach is not done experimenting with riffing on styles of the past. This is fine with me, because he is doing a terrific job.
The biggest difference between While We’re Young and previous Baumbach movies is that it has a clearly defined plot. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as a fortysomething couple who find themselves at a crossroads. Their best friends just had a baby, while they seem to be stuck at a pleasant but uneventful stage in their relationship. Stiller in particular. He is a once promising documentarian who has been struggling to finish his second movie for ten years. The inciting incident comes in the form of a young couple: aspiring documentarian Adam Driver and his wife Amanda Seyfried. After hanging out with them for a little while, our main couple is enchanted by their young-New-York-hipster ways.
This is a comedy, especially in its first half, which derives surprising amounts of humor out of the generational clash of the two couples. I know this may sound like something you have seen before, but Baumbach -who also wrote the movie- seem to have a well of clever -and funny- things to say about losing touch with youth culture. “Their apartment is full of things we threw out years ago, but it looks so nice the way they have it”, says Naomi Watts’s character at one point. And there is undoubtedly some sense of trying to go back to more authentic times it this younger couple. While Watts skims Netflix looking for a movie, and Stiller plays around with his iPhone, Driver watches a VHS copy of The Howling and Seyfried spends her time making artisanal ice cream.
The couples start a symbiotic relationship. Stiller’s character clearly gets off on the cool apparent authenticity of the younger couple. “They’re all about process” he says to his wife not too long he starts wearing a fedora. Meanwhile, Driver seems to be looking for the same thing in Stiller. He claims to be a fan of his work, and wants to have him as a mentor. As you might expect, the final conflict in the movie builds itself out of this relationship, and the realization that the benefits might not be equal for both parties. This is especially once we realize that Naomi Watts’s character’s father is a famous documentary filmmaker (played by the great Charles Grodin).
According to Baumbach, the inspirations for While We’re Young are a number of smart comedies from the eighties like Broadcast News and Working Girl. Being set in New York City, one can also see traces of Woody Allen’s eighties work, especially Crimes and Misdemeanors, which also features a documentarian protagonist. Also like Crimes and Misdemeanors, this movie shapes itself into a little bit of thriller, especially in the third act. However, the brilliance of While We’re Young comes in the form of a fascinating anti-climax.
Talking about the details of While We’re Young‘s third act would be unfair to those who haven’t seen the movie yet, so I’ll just say that despite its uncharacteristic “plotiness”, the lack of a satisfying payoff makes the movie fit comfortably in Baumbach’s filmography. Turns out that While We’re Young was, after all, a character study. And following into Baumbach’s recent experimentation with style, it becomes a story about life being inherently different to storytelling. There is no bombastic climax or tight plots to life. In a way, Baumbach is arguing for the type of cinema that he makes.
But talking about While We’re Young in those terms might be too meta-filmic. The strength of this movie is in the way Baumbach treats his characters. A lot is said about authors either loving or hating their characters too much. Baumbach seems to be merciless in his objectivity. He will spend an enormous amount of time and energy making Stiller’s character look like a misguided doofus, but when the shit hits the fan, his reactions and emotions are real. He acts and reacts like a human being, and that is what makes me connect to While We’re Young. It’s a movie without big triumphs, and without clear defeats. It is a story, above all, about people having more than one opinion at a time. When Stiller comes marching in with a big revelation at the end of the third act, he is met with a shrug. He might be onto something, but at the end of the day, no one really cares that much.
I wouldn’t want to end this review without singling out how important the acting is to While We’re Young‘s success. Everyone in the ensemble does a terrific job. Seyfried and Grodin do great work with what they’re given, and Adam Driver is obviously a tremendously funny guy who can do wonders playing at being a bit of a douchebag. The real heart of the movie are, of course, Stiller and Watts. Somewhat surprising, and certainly gratifying, is the fact that it’s Stiller that gets the most effective dramatic moments, while Watts shines as a fantastic comedienne. She turns smoking a cigarette into the funniest thing I’ve seen all year.
Grade: 8 out of 10