Noah Baumbach is one of those directors/writers that embodies the indie spirit. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he was made to be imbued with an urban chic/hipsterism aesthetic. His best written characters tend to have a natural authenticity, often characteristic of today’s hipsters, but also have a lighthearted, joyous nature. Frances, played by Greta Gerwing in Baumbach’s last movie, Frances Ha, perfectly captured that spirit and Baumbach was resoundingly praised for that film.
While We’re Young is an attempt to re-capture that same independent spirit, but casts more well-known leads like Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, as a middle-aged couple in the midst of a midlife crisis. Somewhat unsettled by the prospect of their current group of friends having kids, as well as being in a rut with their careers, Josh (Stiller), a documentary filmmaker, and Cornelia (Watts), film producer, have their world turned upside down when they meet young, cool, Brooklyn couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). They exchanged their wedding vows in an abandoned water tower. They have a democratic record collection, make their own furniture, and their own ice cream. Jamie is even an aspiring documentarian. They are the epitome of everything Cornelia and Josh used to be and long to be again.
This intergenerational tension, as well as Josh and Cornelia’s tension with their friends who had a baby, is played for a great amount of laughs as the young, cool, hip couple takes the older Josh and Cornelia on their adventures and has them experience new things they have never done before. It’s a very mainstream comedy plot line with a indie sentiment in the filmmaking, quirky dialogue and well-timed cuts, as well as jangly, whimsical scoring that is very reminiscent of any Wes Anderson movie, that makes the first third enjoyable. Watts, as the slightly more loose, but hesitant, Cornelia and Driver, as the cool, easy-going Jamie, are both delightful in their roles, with Driver being the best of the bunch.
The final two thirds of the movie take a slight left from the “couples comedy” and the movie becomes more about Stiller’s Joshua and the tension he begins to develop with Driver’s Jamie. While I would have liked to have seen the story be both Watts and Stiller’s, Stiller takes the drivers seat as he comes to terms with his own moral choices, both in the present and in the past, and struggles to see Jamie surpass him in success and forge a relationship with his father-in-law (Charles Grodin), a famous documentary filmmaker, who, like Jamie, have made some questionable ethical choices in order to shrewdly get ahead in their field. Truth and objectivity, as well as ethics in art, seem to take the center stage and becomes a case of too many balls to juggle in the movie.
The final scene seems to be communicating a message that as you age you want to be young, and the young want to be old, and aging, as well as moving into different life stages, is something to embrace, rather than reject. It echoes the wisdom of Solomon in Proverbs:
“Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness.” Proverbs 16:31
The decisions that Jamie makes to shrewdly step over the people he has cared about is in direct contrast to the “righteous” choices Josh has made in his career. Josh’s ethicality is his “crown of splendor” where as Jamie’s selfish decisions lack knowledge and discretion and are the mark of someone young and foolish. However, it is not too be demonized, but simply a byproduct of being young. While the movie is a little jumbled and this final determination seems a bit hastily cobbled from different parts of the movie, While We’re Young is different than most of what would be considered mainstream comedies and hopefully will inspire filmmakers to continue to breathe fresh life into the comedy genre.