If age is just a state of mind, then “While We’re Young” is the best kind of therapy a fortysomething starting to lose touch with the younger generation could hope for: Witty, articulate and reminiscent of several talented directors who no longer mean so much to today’s kids, Noah Baumbach’s latest stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as husband-and-wife filmmakers who “adopt” a mid-20s hipster couple as friends. Though not as broadly appealing as a Judd Apatow picture, Baumbach’s own acutely observed this-is-life laffer features his most relatable characters yet. Marketed right, it stands to considerably outperform his other pics, which tend to top out around $4 million.
Like the Woody Allen character in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Stiller’s Josh Srebnick frets that the talky, noncommercial documentary he’s been working on for the past decade may never get done. Looking back, he and wife Cornelia (Watts) can’t seem to figure out when they stopped being young and ambitious, and instead became a pair of middle-aged disappointments, though their choice not to have kids — more nature’s decision than their own, really — sets them apart from the rest of their peers.
The last of their same-age friends, played by Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys), just gave birth and have since gotten pushier than a pair of Scientologists in trying to recruit Josh and Cornelia into the cult of mid-life parenthood. Listening to the couple trying to rationalize their child-free status is simultaneously hilarious and sad: “Maybe the point is that we have the freedom. What we do with it isn’t important,” volunteers Josh.
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Baumbach fans will recognize that as the kind of under-your-skin comedy the writer-director does best, even though nothing here quite approaches the level of prickly self-absorption “Greenberg” allowed Stiller to portray. In this film, both he and Watts serve in a more conventional comedic capacity, offering sincere in-character reactions to unfamiliar situations — none more foreign than their dealings with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a Brooklyn couple young enough to be their kids.
Jamie is also a filmmaker, quickly endearing himself to Josh by gushing about all the trouble he went through to track down his long-out-of-print first film on VHS. Baumbach takes his time playing compare-and-contrast between the generations, offering hilarious insights into how the younger half lives. In one especially clever montage, Baumbach shows the older characters entertaining themselves via Netflix and new technology, while the young ones play board games and listen to their music on vinyl.
Everything old is new again — sort of, since Josh realizes to his slight horror that he’s dealing with a generation that has never bought or owned a compact disc. “It’s like their apartment is full of stuff we threw out,” observes Cornelia, who starts attending hip-hop exercise classes with Darby, ditching a weekend with friends so she and Josh can attend a hallucinogenic Ayahuasca ceremony, barfing up impurities alongside their exciting new acquaintances. These are details that, as with his previous film, “Frances Ha,” no doubt benefit from Baumbach’s dating much younger actress Greta Gerwig (who might have made a great Darby), just as her improv-comfortable peers (among whom Driver is fast emerging a star) benefit from such a solidly written screenplay.
Though “While We’re Young” is primarily a comedy — and a very funny one at that, managing to be both blisteringly of-the-moment and classically zany in the same breath — Baumbach has bitten off several serious topics, for which laughter serves as the most agreeable way to engage. The alternative, of course, might be a play like Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” from which he quotes at the outset, though he finds it more effective to make a clown of Stiller’s character than to introduce a tragic figure.
And so, anchored by Stiller’s egoless portrayal of middle-age insecurity, the film examines how as a species, humans are naturally threatened by the younger generation, who possess an energy and an aptitude that daunts the more experienced. We can cower from it, as “The Master Builder’s” Solness attempts to do, or embrace the fear. For Josh and Cornelia, the brush with youth re-energizes their marriage, even as it reveals the depths of Josh’s pettiness, once he realizes that this young filmmaker he was so willing to help may actually be on to something interesting.
Audiences tend to get uncomfortable when a film engages as directly with its own themes as “While We’re Young.” Even the title sounds a bit too on-the-nose, but Baumbach can get away with it, since he has created characters who put no filter between what they think and what they say — especially in the deliciously uncomfortable final stretch, once Josh decides to proactively sabotage his protege’s documentary project.
In cases like these, we must also listen for what goes unsaid, particularly as concerns the female characters and, by extension, Josh’s father-in-law, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin). Two decades earlier, Josh married the daughter of a celebrated documentary filmmaker (the pic’s finale takes place at a lifetime achievement ceremony where clips from Maysles’ “Experiment on 114th Street” are presented as his work), and what was his angle exactly? Also glimpsed at the same ceremony is Peter Bogdanovich, who might be asking himself some of the same questions as Josh these days, having relied on Baumbach’s help to complete his virtually charmless Venice-screened screwball comedy “She’s Funny That Way.”
By contrast, Baumbach’s pic looks bright and ebulliently dynamic. He, too, is channeling earlier helmers, of the Hal Ashby/Mike Nichols/Paul Mazursky variety, though more in spirit than in style. Baumbach’s script crackles with life, delivered by actors just right for their roles. Stiller and Watts not only show convincing chemistry — the sort that can sometimes be conveyed with as little as a glance between them — they also demonstrate that while this industry often ignores actors past a certain age (as it has Grodin), these two are richer and more layered now than ever before. Middle age is like a foreign country, Baumbach seems to be saying, and some day, if it hasn’t happened already, we wake up there and realize we don’t speak the language.