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WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (2015) review

April 5, 2015

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written by: Noah Baumbach
produced by: Noah Baumbach, Eli Bush, Lila Yacoub, & Scott Rudin
directed by: Noah Baumbach
rating: R (for language)
runtime: 97 min.
U.S. release date: March 27, 2015 (limited) 

 

“I remember when this song was just considered bad.”

As someone born at the very tail end of Generation X, I harbor a ton of contempt for Millennials. Perhaps it’s because my generation (I was born in 1979) doesn’t really have an identity, but tends to side more with Gen X-ers in most things, and the vast majority of Millennials that I encounter think that things from my childhood are cool in ways that I find too steeped in irony to be genuine. This contempt bleeds out of every pore of Noah Baumbach’s newest film “While We’re Young”, a “draw your battle lines” comedy with a third act so filled with disdain, it’s likely to turn most viewers off. While it’s perhaps not as angry as his 2010 film “Greenberg”, it does bear a number of similarities to that film, making it a fairly good litmus test for whether or not you may enjoy this film.

Baumbach’s biggest saving grace is that his scorn is equal opportunity, and he reserves some of the sharpest digs in the film for Gen X couple Josh and Cornelia, played to perfection by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. As a childless couple staring down the barrel of their mid-40s, the two feel ever more disconnected with their own social circle, which seems to be comprised mostly of people their age finally taking the plunge into parenthood. Josh is a documentary filmmaker whose latest project has been ten years in the making and is no closer to completion now than it was when he began it, and his malaise is exacerbated by Cornelia’s success producing documentaries for her father (Charles Grodin), a much more successful and influential documentary filmmaker. Make no mistake, this is a film literate motion picture that has a very narrow appeal, at least in as much as the ability to relate to these characters goes.

 

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Enter Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a hip couple in their mid-20s who attend a lecture given by Josh and butter him up with kind words about his first documentary. The two couples grow closer in their friendship, with Josh and Cornelia alienating their own best friends in the process and attempting to recapture their youth vicariously through these hipster Millennials whose idealism and generosity they can’t help but admire. This culture clash provides most of the film’s meatiest content, but as the younger couple’s faults—as well as their motives for keeping Josh and Cornelia around—begin to come into focus, the film almost becomes another film entirely before finally bringing everything together with a “One Year Later” coda.

The things that have always worked best about Baumbach’s films continue to work well in this one, namely his sharply realized characters and the line their dialogue tows between realistic and dramatically heightened. He is a gifted wordsmith for sure, but beginning with 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale”, my favorite of all his films, he moved further away from the flowery language that made his earlier films feel like they existed in an alternate reality where everyone is as educated and well-read as its author. There are aspects of this film that leave me with a strong temptation to call him a crabby old man, but he’s savvy enough to balance things out so as not to totally demonize the free-spirited Millennials. The addition of Charles Grodin as the resident representative of the Greatest Generation helps to show that the Gen X couple have just as many faults as their younger counterparts, and his presence in the film is a great salve for the film in general.

The film succeeds because of it’s ability to show that generational identity in and of itself is a moronic way to live your life. There is something very freeing about Jamie and Darby’s ability to be themselves without fear of labels, making them such an appealing duo to both Josh and Cornelia, and the audience. Most of the advertising for the film has focused on the humor mined from these various culture clashes, but it’s thankfully much more substantive than that hackneyed sitcom premise makes it sound. Gen X-ers, for better or worse, have always chased success and have never really felt satisfied with whatever amount they manage to achieve, territory that films like “Fight Club” explored in a much more confrontational way. This film’s greatest quality is its ability to dole that message out much more subtly.

 

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As with all of Baumbach’s films, the performances here are pitch perfect. Stiller and Watts are incredibly natural and believable as a couple who has a hard time ever being content, and their journey to self-realization is done remarkably well. Similarly Driver and Seyfried are terrific as two characters masking a ton of insecurity and selfishness. The aforementioned Charles Grodin is also terrific, as are Maria Dizzia and former Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz as Josh and Cornelia’s closest friends. The film works best when it’s eavesdropping on conversations between any of these various characters, though it does come dangerously close to falling apart in the more incident heavy third act.

Baumbach’s soundtrack choices are also fantastic across the board, featuring everything from David Bowie and The Psychedelic Furs to Lionel Richie and Survivor. Baumbach’s closest contemporary, at least in this regard, is Cameron Crowe, but whereas Crowe never really outgrew his more writerly flourishes, Baumbach has shown noted improvements in characterization with each successive film. While a great soundtrack does not a great film make, Baumbach continues to balance the two to perfection, cranking out much more edifying films than anything Crowe’s been able to muster since “Say Anything”.

Its focus is narrow and its audience perhaps even more so, but “While We’re Young” is a film that will resonate most with those dissatisfied with their own lot in life. It gives a ton of credence to the notion of creating your own destiny, presenting a number of characters who achieve just that with a variety of different tactics. It’s one of Baumbach’s funniest and most sharply observed films, and will age well despite its grounding in the present. Beware the third act however, as a number of turns happen, many of which seem to come from nowhere, and will likely alienate a large portion of the audience. Those willing to go along with it, however, will find a mostly rewarding experience that is boldly individual and clearly trying to help the audience to be likewise.

 

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RATING: ***

 

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