Further proving that accessibility is no bad thing in movies, While We’re Young, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s most audience-friendly film to date, is also his best work thus far, with the caveat that his latest, Mistress America, has not yet seen a UK release. Following in the footsteps of his regular collaborator Wes Anderson and his Oscar-winning masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel, Baumbach has sacrificed some of his idiosyncrasies in favour of crafting a warm, sincere, and very funny film whilst also managing to maintain his distinctive voice. It feels very fitting that a story so concerned with the effects of age should show its creator at his most mature, handling inter-generational conflicts without resorting to clichés or easy judgements of its characters.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are Josh and Cornelia, a forty-something couple whose wheels are spinning. Josh’s latest documentary has been 10 years in the making and it’s obviously been a crutch they’ve used to excuse not doing anything for at least half that time. They see themselves as free, thanks to their lack of normal work commitments and children, but they haven’t taken a holiday in years and Josh’s documentary (which he cannot pitch effectively) is self-indulgent and far too long. Their situation is transformed by the arrival of Jamie and Darby into their lives, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. A professed fan of Josh’s work, Jamie approaches him after a lecture and the pair soon strike up a friendship. Jamie and Darby’s youthful vitality re-energises the lives of Josh and Cornelia, who are soon ditching their peers for parties involving Peruvian hallucinogens.
There’s a brilliant chemistry between both couples, and everyone turns in a top-drawer performance, although Seyfried is given less to do than the rest of the leads. Driver is a particular standout, snakelike in his charms and body language, slowly hinting at cracks in his artifice of likeability and generosity. Refreshingly, the general clichés of intergenerational conflict are almost entirely avoided here. Josh and Cornelia are more technology reliant than their 25-year-old counterparts, but Baumbach never resorts to any of the fearmongering or ignorance so prevalent in the similarly themed Men, Women, and Children. On the other hand, Jamie and Darby are typical ‘hipsters’ in their interests, watching VHS tapes and making their own ice cream, but they’re far from denouncers of the modern world. Baumbach does not judge either lifestyle or deem one better, but the mix of them is clearly beneficial for both sides.
The divide between the ages forms the crux of the film’s conflict, as Josh and Cornelia struggle to acknowledge that they no longer belong in the world of street parties and youthful carelessness whilst Jamie and Darby seek some of the experience and wisdom that only middle age can bring. There’s also a subplot involving Cornelia’s father (Charles Grodin), a much-feted documentarian who casts a long shadow over his son-in-law Josh, and how important objective truth is when making a documentary. What’s particularly impressive about this story is that the stakes are never actually high, but it remains thoroughly gripping until its conclusion. However, this comes at the expense of the first half’s laughs, of which there are many. Naomi Watts nearly steals the comedic show with a series of dance classes at which she is entirely out of place, but an encounter with the fantastically stupid ‘Hedge-Fund Dave’ proves the highlight.
While We’re Young is a fantastic study of the barriers that age puts up between people, never resorting to cheap generalisations and remaining highly entertaining and laugh out loud funny. What should most likely end up being Baumbach’s most popular work also manages to be his most accomplished, making the complex balancing act of humour and emotional honesty look easy.