It’s natural for every generation to fear and loathe the one that follows it. (Just who do these kids think they are, with their Snapchats and their Zune players and whatnot?) Realizing that the vibrancy of youth culture is something you are now unmistakably separate from can be a tough pill to swallow, especially when combined with the onset of your own physical decay.
Aging people typically responds to this by closing ranks and minds, romanticizing their own youth while lamenting the sorry state of the new generation. But sometimes, people instead try to prolong their youth and relevance by assimilating themselves into the younger generation.
The married couple at the center of Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young attempts to do just that, to often comedic effect. Josh (Ben Stiller) is a listless filmmaker who’s been toiling on the same documentary for 10 years. Cornelia (Naomi Watts) misses their spontaneity-filled salad days, and she eyes her husband’s creative gridlock with increasing concern. Their friends are all busy having babies, leaving Josh and Cornelia stranded at the depot between youth and adulthood.
Their ennui gives way to excitement when they meet Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. The young couple is everything Josh and Cornelia wish they could recapture in themselves: they’re spontaneous, creative, cultured, fearless, and effortlessly hip.
The movie gets decent comedic mileage out of Josh and Cornelia’s attempts to fit in with their new friends, whether it’s by updating their wardrobes, taking hip-hop dancing classes, or dabbling in nausea-inducing hallucinogens. For a while, While We’re Young looks poised to fit nicely alongside other coming-of-age Baumbach dramedies like The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha.
But all that takes a turn as While We’re Young nears its third act. Jamie has enlisted Josh’s help on a documentary, but Josh realizes that portions of the film have been falsified. The previously affable but self-centered Jamie is abruptly repositioned as While We’re Young‘s villain, complete with a Usual Suspects-like montage where the true, nefarious meanings behind many of his earlier comments click into place for Josh. It’s even revealed that Josh and Jamie’s first meeting wasn’t an organic encounter as it appeared to be, but rather a staged attempt by Jamie to get close to Josh and his famous documentarian father-in-law (Charles Grodin).
What was once a relatable tale of an older couple swept up by a younger one abruptly devolves into a race for Josh to expose Jamie. This results in the film’s most cringe-inducing scene, where a self-righteous Josh admonishes Jamie for his tactics, all intercut with a speech by Grodin pontificating on the nobility of documentaries. Josh and Jamie aren’t even characters by that point, but rather mouthpieces for opposing generational points of view regarding art, sampling vs. stealing, etc.
The melodramatic clash over ideologies derails the rest of While We’re Young, leaving a slew of plot threads to dangle. The poorly drawn Cordelia gets particularly short shrift throughout the film, as Watts is given little to do but long to have a baby and periodically argue with Josh. Does Cordelia even have a job or interests? The film is so concerned with Stiller’s petulant man-child and its own ideas about integrity that it never bothers to finish sketching her character. She’s only ever the worrying wife, the wannabe mother, or the dutiful daughter.
A better film would have dug in and explored the ways each of the couples selfishly benefited from their generation-spanning relationship. Such an arrangement would no doubt be unsustainable, but there would have been great potential in Josh and Cordelia learning how to revitalize their own marriage without living vicariously through a younger couple or having a baby. But, as it so often does, While We’re Young takes the cheapest route possible, and all’s well that ends well as Josh and Cordelia decide to adopt a baby at the film’s end, thus fixing all their problems. Spoiler alert, I guess.
While We’re Young opens Friday, April 3 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas.