“While We’re Young” Overcomes a Generic Title … Before It Gets Old

While We're Young

While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, 2014)

The worst thing about this movie is its incredibly generic title, “While We’re Young.” Really? The writer/director of The Squid and the WhaleMargot at the Wedding and Frances Ha – among others – couldn’t do better? It sounds like it belongs on a tacky romcom starring Jennifer Aniston. Fortunately, the best thing about the film – its charming ensemble cast – largely makes up for this. Unfortunately, the writing isn’t always up to the talents of that cast, and breaks down in the last third, resulting in cringe-worthy expositional arguments on street corners where feuding characters explain all of their past history and grievances for the audience’s benefit. So it’s a mixed bag. But when it works, it’s delightful. Save your bathroom break for the final act.

The movie opens with title cards showing dialogue between Solness and Hilde in Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play The Master Builder, in which the two discuss the passing of the torch from an older generation to a younger one. Right away, that’s a problem, since it hits us over the head with the movie’s theme. But then we’re immediately taken away from this clumsiness as we meet Josh – played by a nicely restrained Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) – and Cornelia – the ever-luminescent Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) – a married couple in their 40s, both documentary filmmakers (he a director, she a producer). Cornelia works mostly for her father, famed cinema vérité director Leslie Breitbart – played by the great Charles Grodin (Midnight Run) – a man out from whose shadow Josh cannot seem to emerge. Watts and Stiller have an easy and believable rapport, and when we first see them they are in the apartment of new-parent friends. Awkward with the baby, they return home to their blessedly child-free place, happy to have no such burden, free to pursue their work. Or are they happy? Yes, you can probably see the movie’s resolution at this point, which brings us back to that final-act problem.

But before we get there, we also meet aspiring documentarian Jamie – played by the effortlessly charismatic Adam Driver (Adam on “Girls“) – and his wife, Darby played by a sweet Amanda Seyfried (Red Riding Hood). They’re the free spirits that Josh and Cornelia wish they still were (childlessness notwithstanding), and soon the older couple is abandoning their age-appropriate friends of the opening to spend more and more time with these twenty-somethings. And why not? Josh can’t seem to finish the movie he’s been working on for almost 10 years, anyway. This generational collision provides much of the film’s humor and wit, as we watch the still-attractive and fit – but no longer 25 – Stiller and Watts do their best to keep up with Driver and Seyfried. Soon, though, it turns out that Driver’s Jamie may have an ulterior motive to his friendship, since his own career ambitions require the kind of access and legitimacy that these older folks (and, especially, Cornelia’s father) can provide.

And until the film devolves into those unfortunate screaming matches and an all-too-pat ending, Jamie’s manipulative machinations lead to all sorts of interesting observations about the changing nature of filmmaking ethics and attribution in our modern world of sampling and reality television. What is allowable in a documentary that purports to be about truth? Is truth even a value that we still celebrate? It’s a worthy discussion, placed neatly in the center of a funny comedy about middle age. Too bad the movie has all that extra filler. Then again, with its nondescript title, perhaps it was inevitable that the final result would be less than satisfying. So enjoy the well-acted and well-scripted moments that exist, and do your best to ignore the rest.

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