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While We're Young (2015)

Becoming of Age

The trailers for While We're Young make it look like either a Ben Stiller comedy skewering hipsters, or an Adam Driver comedy skewering the middle-aged. Josh and Cornelia (Stiller and Naomi Watts) are a mid-forties couple caught between the opposing but equally compelling desires to have a kid or remain comfortable in pursuit of dreams they may not even recognize anymore. They meet mid-twenties couple Jamie and Darby (Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who seem to spend every waking moment taking on the world--passionately creating, collecting, absorbing, doing. It's not long before Josh and Jamie are schlepping around New York on bicycles in too-tight jeans and Panama hats, while Cornelia and Darby shed sweat in hip-hop classes; both couples attend a spiritual gathering involving hallucinogens and vomiting into personal puke pots.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach's latest has all the gloss and high-concept draw of a crowd-pleasing studio comedy, but it's a much richer experience, frankly, than most audiences may be ready for. Josh is a documentary filmmaker who's spent the better part of a decade making a film that no one will likely want to see. He picks at it; he worries; he whines. Jamie enters his life as a make-it-happen whirlwind of ambition that turns Josh into an awed but deeply jealous student of Millennial culture. Idolatry has its downside, however, and we soon discover a disquieting reservoir of self-absorption beneath Jamie's open-minded, kitsch-loving demeanor.

Baumbach skews a little too far in the youth-critique column for my taste. This may be a function of age on his part, but I found a curious depth imbalance between the complex varieties of "adults" in the picture, versus the spaced-out phone-freaks who somehow think getting married in an abandoned Harlem water tower (with a Slip 'n Slide!) constitutes making a statement. Look no further than the unflattering and underdeveloped Darby character. Seyfried is charming and funny in the role, but she's called upon to be a cypher for Driver's character. The weight of While We're Young's female voice rests solely on Watt's more-than-capable shoulders; the implication is that twenty-something women have nothing to say because their men do all the talking (and thinking).

What's more, there aren't any nice people under thirty in this picture, and everyone over forty is neurotic but essentially decent. While I appreciate Baumbach's eerily keen eye in crafting jokes that ring true about modern adulthood, regardless of age, I felt he was a tad overzealous in backing his own generation's horse. He's swung the pendulum, consciously or not, in the opposite direction from Greenberg (also starring Stiller), whose middle-age characters were repulsive but vividly drawn. Baumbach is still sketching; like frustrated documentarian Josh, he's on a years-long quest to cobble something together resembling a definitive and universally true statement about what makes his generation tick.

Things get muddy, though, as traditional plot elements creep into an otherwise refreshing, explorative screenplay. Towards the middle, Jamie becomes more cartoonish in his machinations, and Josh ascends Soapbox Mountain on wings of virtue. Baumbach pulls just a deft enough turn at the climax to bring his story back from the brink, but the last ten minutes (sweet and well-intentioned as they are) feel more conventional than the first half of the movie suggests they might have been.

Noah Baumbach has a lot to say about a lot of things, which is more than I can say about the creators of most theatrical comedies. He deserves tremendous credit for asking big cultural questions in his films (even if they are awkwardly posed and un-answerable in our time), and providing smart, stinging belly laughs during the conversation.

While We're Young feels very much like a conversation-starter, a well-meaning assumption-dump on Baumbach's part that invites a dialogue with the audience regarding how they relate to their own peers, dreams, and values. The results are bound to be messy and challenging, much like the film. That's meta, baby. And meta's hip. But, you know, in a good way.

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