Writer/director Noah Baumbach has built his career on assholes. From The Squid and the Whale to Frances Ha, his filmography is filled with grumpy, misanthropic New Yorkers—and as such, his movies can be challenging to watch, like raw, painful versions of Woody Allen comedies.
Baumbach’s latest, While We’re Young, seems at first like a departure from his usual form. The characters are likable, the situations relatable, and the comedy a little less bitter. But like a great pop song, its light and bouncy attitude is just a tease that belies a core every bit as dark and unflinchingly introspective as any of his previous works.
The film starts with a premise fit for a sitcom: Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are married and childless in New York, approaching middle age with neurotic anxiety. When they meet a hipster couple two decades younger—budding artist Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried)—they quickly become pals and dive headfirst into a new world of vintage hats and artisanal ice cream. It’s a joint midlife crisis, but instead of a sports car, Josh and Cornelia simply get younger versions of themselves.
Baumbach stages these early scenes with a gleeful pop sensibility rarely found in his work. A vivid montage cuts between the older couple relying on advanced technology like Apple TV and elliptical machines, and their youthful counterparts reveling in analog pleasures like VHS tapes and outdoor sports. The delightful sequence combines a strong command of the form with genuine insight, demonstrating the deep yearning shared by both couples for a more satisfying, authentic life.
In other words, each couple is using the other, and it’s only a matter of time before the intergenerational lovefest goes sour. Jamie and Josh end up collaborating on a film project, roping in Cornelia’s father, an esteemed documentarian played winningly by Charles Grodin. Soon, Josh becomes suspicious: Is Jamie’s youthful enthusiasm for real, or is it a persona that hides his naked ambition? Because the older couple has become so influenced by their younger counterparts, the answer carries enormous personal stakes.
But for the first time, Baumbach seems more interested in his ideas than his characters. Josh’s disillusionment with Jamie matters to us, but it also begins to resemble a debate between two generations about the nature of art. When he discovers that Jamie withheld information from him in order to manipulate the content of his documentary, Josh feels deeply betrayed, but Jamie does not equate art with truth and fails to see the harm done.
This discussion feels right for our era of “Blurred Lines” lawsuits and documentary journalism like HBO’s The Jinx, and Baumbach pulls it off well, with Josh and Jamie embodying each perspective with thorough conviction. The only hitch? By the time While We’re Young ends, it doesn’t feel quite like the same movie it was when it began. The film is alternatively driven by characters, plot, and ideas, and only rarely do they cohere into a satisfying narrative. Oddly enough for Baumbach, it’s the sunny characters that carry the day, even if the movie they inhabit is just as dark and stormy as ever.
While We’re Young opens April 3 at E Street Cinema.