The two Noah Baumbach films I’ve seen didn’t inspire much interest in While We’re Young for me. I can remember virtually nothing of Greenberg and I vividly remember strongly disliking Frances Ha. But I also figured it could be something to do with Greta Gerwig. Knowing that she wasn’t in While We’re Young and seeing the strong reviews for it, I decided to give Mr. Baumbach another chance. I’m glad I did.
Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are living a married life that isn’t as fulfilling as they try to put on. He’s been trying to finish his opus documentary for what seems like forever and they’ve given up trying to have kids (although they may still want some). However, they find their deep dissatisfaction dredged up and challenged when Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple, enter their lives.
Considering I’m 25 and single, I’m not sure why I connected so strongly to this story about a middle-aged married couple, but I found Josh and Cornelia’s existential struggles and desire to be fulfilled pretty relatable and understandable. It helped that they were a reasonably likable couple and it was easy to want them to reach their goals and be happy. The story of the struggling artist developing a friendship with someone who’s not quite what he seems and is in fact is trying to usurp the artist’s role raised flashes of All About Eve. Of course the movie doesn’t reach those kinds of heights, but it does an admirable job of remaining interesting all the way through.
The movie raised questions about how much we (the movie-watching public) care about integrity and honesty in the films we watch and experience or whether more often the end of an entertaining story justifies the means of manipulation of our thoughts and emotions. Is there redeeming value in massaging the presentation of a story if that alteration allows more people to be engaged and to connect to that story than if it were told simply in the truest, most accurate order of events? That’s something I’ve struggled with as a screenwriter. My fourth script is a historical drama and for the sake of the story, I’ve had to change facts and fudge details in the hopes that it would work better for an audience. I understand the utility of that approach, of sacrificing historical accuracy for the benefit of a more appealing story. What good is a movie that lays out events exactly as they happened but isn’t compelling enough for anyone to actually watch it? But there’s still a part of me that feels guilty not presenting these events as they happened. It’s a constant struggle and While We’re Young surprisingly raises a thoughtful discussion about it.
Ben Stiller is so good at playing the frustrated, underappreciated guy who just can’t catch a break. It feels like a role we’ve seen him in before, but he fits so well that it’s not remotely troubling. It’s also great to see him play a role as a relatively real and flawed person instead of the (intentional) caricatures that have been so iconic for him. Naomi Watts is her typically steady self and manages to balance Stiller’s neuroticism. But the highlight for me was Adam Driver. I liked him in Inside Llewyn Davis and found him the lone highlight in Frances Ha so I was looking forward to seeing more of him here (especially since his participation in the next Star Wars movie was announced). While he played the kind of hipster character I’ve been known to not exactly be fond of, Driver does an incredible job of making Jamie’s outlandish pretension and carelessness fascinating and likable. In my gut, I knew I couldn’t stand the guy, but boy was he charming and charismatic. I was also a fan of Amanda Seyfried’s performance (which is a bit unusual) and loved Charles Grodin as Cornelia’s legendary documentarian father.
While We’re Young is a witty, touching comedy that digs deeper than its hipster exterior might suggest. That’s especially surprising and pleasing for me given that a focus on hipster life is what I’ve come to associate with Baumbach (probably unfairly [post-Frances Ha]). But he obviously has awareness of the absurdity of that culture but goes beyond simply insulting or attacking it, instead allowing characters like Josh and Cornelia who’ve been stuck in ruts to take the positives from that lifestyle and grow. Like its strong, interesting characters, While We’re Young is often more than it appears at first glance and as a result is a more than pleasant way to spend a couple hours.