Noah Baumbach makes comedies about real stuff—in other words, he looks humorously at various aspects of life that he’s familiar with. His previous two films, Greenberg and Frances Ha, dealt with people who are having trouble growing up despite having graduated from college. His latest picture is called While We’re Young, and this time he’s poking fun at a different stage of life, people in their 40s who are trying to get used to not being young anymore, and are starting to feel like they’re running out of time to accomplish something meaningful.
Ben Stiller plays Josh, a documentary filmmaker who has struggled for ten years to complete his second movie. We first meet him and his wife Cornelia, played by Naomi Watts, as they visit friends, a married couple with a new baby, and this couple’s complete absorption in their infant and their status as new parents is very funny. Josh and Cornelia have decided not to have kids, and the film gently ridicules a certain process of infantilization that sometimes happens to people who do, notably in a humorous scene where Cornelia accompanies friends to a musical sing-along for babies.
Josh teaches film, and one day meets a couple in their 20s who are sitting in on his class for no credit. Jamie, played by Adam Driver, is an aspiring documentary filmmaker himself who professes great admiration for Josh’s work, to the point of being almost worshipful. His wife Darby, played by Amanda Seyfried, makes ice cream, and has an easy-going, sarcastic way of talking to her husband that is funny. Josh, immensely flattered by the respect shown to him by this younger man, persuades Cornelia to invite the new couple into their lives, and gradually they both start to imitate Jamie and Darby’s hipster ways. Along the way, Baumbach’s clever script provides laugh-out-loud instances of middle aged people making themselves look ridiculous. A big highlight for me was an extended sequence in which the couples attend a weird pseudo-shamanic workshop with a pretentious guru where they all partake of an hallucinogenic drink and start puking. It’s a rare over-the-top situation in a Baumbach film, and it almost had me on the floor laughing.
In the meantime, Jamie has gotten Josh involved in helping with his own first film, and this inevitably creates problems. Josh and Cornelia must learn to accept their time of life with its own challenges. This is Baumbach’s most accessible picture, I think. Ben Stiller, who has been in a lot of bad films and who played a narcissist in Greenberg, here gets to be a three dimensional, believable human being. Adam Driver is excellent as the mercurial protégé Jamie. If there’s a weakness, it’s that the women characters don’t have as much to do, although I must say Naomi Watts trying to dance in a hip-hop style is very funny.
But the story is really more about the tension between the two guys—in effect this is a male midlife crisis comedy. While We’re Young is about career too, not just relationships, and in the final third it gets a little more serious, just as the lead couple must snap out of their youth-obsessed fantasy. It’s thoughtful and it’s good comedy, and that’s a rare combination.