Over the course of Noah Baumbach's 20-year career as a filmmaker, it's been fascinating watching him wrestle with the idea of where you are in your life, and what you're supposed to be doing with that time. In his charming 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming, he followed a group of post-collegiate Gen-X-ers doing everything in their power not to move on into "the real world." By 2010's Greenberg, he was dealing with the self-loathing of a 40-something guy whose youthful idealism probably cost him his one shot at success. And in 2012's Frances Ha, he had circled back around to 20-somethings, following a would-be dancer approaching a moment when she's already wondering whether to scale back her sense of what's possible.
While We're Young finds Baumbach taking on generational differences with a satirical eye that feels trained more-or-less equally on both generations. He opens with a great low-key gag: Forty-something New Yorkers Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are fumbling an attempt to soothe an infant, all while a cradle music-maker plays a tinkling version of David Bowie's "Golden Years." But the baby isn't theirs; the newborn belongs to their also-40-something friends, and the childless Josh and Cornelia seem completely baffled by being the peers of people who have suddenly become all about this other tiny person.
But there's a shift in perspective on the horizon when documentary filmmaker Josh teaches a continuing-education class in his craft, and meets 20-something couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). When Jamie and Darby join Josh and Cornelia for dinner, the older couple becomes energized by their new young friends' creative spark. And as they begin to spend more time hanging out with Jamie and Darby, they feel less and less connected to their parenting peers.
At first, it feels like Baumbach is mostly out for a slick—though very funny—skewering of a particular species of Brooklyn "hipster." The fedora-wearing, tattooed Jamie and the avocado-and-almond-milk artisan-ice-cream-making Darby live in a loft filled with analog media, and invite Josh and Cornelia to a shamanic ritual that involves ingesting mescaline and mass vomiting. Yet, Baumbach also sets up a sly montage that juxtaposes the leisure activities of the two couples—one pair listening to vinyl and watching VHS tapes, the other surfing through their DVR listings and spending all their time on their smartphones. Rejecting modern technology may be something of a pose for Jamie and Darby, but While We're Young doesn't exactly suggest that the children of the '80s are a model for right living, either.
More significantly, While We're Young takes on the notion of the mid-life crisis as a confrontation with the opportunities no longer open to you. Josh may pay lip service to the idea that, as far as choosing not to pursue having a child after failed attempts years earlier, "the point is we have the freedom," but they're not doing much with the freedom they have. Josh's still-unfinished, nearly-a-decade-in-the-making second film becomes a kind of security blanket, allowing him to maintain the illusion that the work that will make his career a success might still be ahead of him. And as Josh begins to take on the role of mentor to Josh's own new documentary project, Baumbach confronts the role that being a parent often plays in an adult's development: forcing you to surrender self-absorption and think about a bigger picture than your own desires.
It's a shame that Baumbach fumbles much of his momentum down the stretch, as While We're Young takes a turn towards focusing on Josh's jealousy regarding how much everyone seems to admire Jamie's movie. The acerbic situational comedy—with funky moments like Jamie's co-camera-operator dashing across the frame as they approach one documentary subject's house, because a movie's gotta move—gives way to plot twists that don't seem worth whatever they're doing to puncture idealized notions of affectation and authenticity. It's a much more satisfying movie when it's allowing room for Driver's wonderfully loose portrait of ironic-Lionel-Richie-listening Millennial-ism, and a conclusion that suggests every generation now is destined for its own unique brand of narcissism. Baumbach knows we're all wondering if we're on the right life track, and While We're Young once again shows that he understands how funny that wondering can be.
WHILE WE'RE YOUNG