Coming off of the cinematic breath of fresh air that was Frances Ha, one would assume that director Noah Baumbach would be rejuvenated. It’s not that he had to recover, just that his collaboration with co-writer and star (and girlfriend) Greta Gerwig seemed to take material that Baumbach was already comfortable with and give it a brand new refreshing spin instead of him retreading the same Woody-Allen-but-sadder territory. With its celebration of the flawed but endearing spirit of youth, a surprisingly charming lead performance by the normally languid Gerwig, and Baumbach’s own trademark dry wit it seemed like a perfect shift to a new chapter in his career. But instead of using Frances Ha as a springboard, Baumbach has missed the mark completely and suffered an embarrassing face-plant with While We’re Young, a painfully unfunny movie that goes against nearly everything Baumbach stands for.
The set-up is pure Baumbach. A crotchety—and rich—Manhattanite documentary filmmaker (Ben Stiller, playing the Baumbach surrogate, which is now a thing) struggling to finish his 8-years-in-the-making film and his beautiful—and successful—wife (Naomi Watts, playing an egregiously underwritten character) face the anxieties of their 40s. The only friends they seem to have are a pushy Upper West Side—and also rich—married couple (the husband is bizarrely yet likeably played by Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys) with a newborn child who pressure them into getting their lives together, settling down, and facing middle age. Instead of doing so, Stiller and Watts’ characters meet and befriend a young Brooklyn hipster couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried who embody all the joie de vivre that left their own lives and relationship years ago.
It is a simple and terribly mainstream concept of coupling comedy that, in the hands of someone as clever and biting as Baumbach, should have given the director the opportunity for his first broad comedy hit. Instead, the tone-deaf narrative and thematically empty characters throughout go nowhere, with the movie turning on its own plot and ultimately seeming like a phony imitation of what a good Baumbach movie can be.
Driver’s character Jamie is an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and implores Stiller’s character Josh to take him under his wing and show him the cinematic ropes. The obvious compare-and-contrast story beats come and go, and the two end up matching lightning quick wits as these types are wont to do in a Baumbach movie. But nearly all of the exchanges between them are cheaply peppered with a series of uncharacteristically glib (for Baumbach) references to cultural signifiers in the forms of various examples of art, music, restaurants, and films. Instead of these mediums serving the narrative and the specific characters, like in Kicking and Screaming, here they flow freely from the characters’ mouths without any concern for why mentioning so many of them should mean something.
The rest of the scenes meant to amusingly point out the specific generational differences between the couples are overly simplistic and all fall flat. Jamie has a cool fedora, why not have Josh try to get a cool hat too and just look goofy? Watts’ character Cornelia can’t dance, so why not have her join a hip-hop dance class with Seyfried’s character Darby and awkwardly try to bump and grind? Jamie rides a hip road bike everywhere, why not have Josh fumble around on his own vintage bicycle while trying to ride through Manhattan?
These scenes only reach a tenuous level of comedy, hinting at a sense of slapstick from Stiller that never really fits and remains repetitive if anything. We get it, they’re trying to be young but their middle-age insecurity always gets the best of them. These random scenes—the worst of all being an over-long and stale scene involving a new age ritualistic ceremony where the characters take a plant root in order to puke up their impurities—try so hard to be funny, and yet they lack any real reason for being in the movie besides showing how ostensibly wacky it is for people in their 40s to be doing something like that.
From there, the film takes a bizarre turn and abandons any sort of levity set up in the first half’s contrasting foundation. Jamie gloms onto an idea for a documentary allegedly involving a long lost acquaintance from high school that he soon finds out is suffering PTSD from his tour of duty in Afrghanistan. Cornelia, and her legendary documentarian father (Charles Grodin, playing a sort of Albert Mayles-type elder statesman of documentary cinema) agree to produce the movie, and with Josh in tow the group leaves all baby-talk or anxiety about aging behind for an unusual and wildly uneven second half about—for some reason—finding truth in cinema.
What this has to do with the initial themes of the movie I’d like to know, because the emotional denouement of the film, which takes place at a gala ceremony celebrating the career of Grodin’s character (with Maysles’ own Experiment on 114th Street standing in for the characters’ work) involves Josh pitifully confronting Jamie not about his own fearfulness in the face of this much younger and cooler man, but whether or not Jamie lied about the reality of the subjects in his documentary. It left me scratching my head about whether I was watching the same movie that started once the lights went down.
I was angry when the credits rolled for While We’re Young. Not because it’s a bad movie, which it is, but because I know Baumbach could do so much better. Instead of empathizing with youth in the way he normally does, Baumbach instead relies upon flippant critiques of the way he thinks young people behave as if he were the old man next door to you in your apartment building yelling at you to turn your music down because it’s too loud. What happened to the Baumbach from Kicking and Screaming with his biting and ironic finger on the pulse of the sophomoric yet winsome ideals of young people? What happened to the Baumbach from Frances Ha who accepted the flaws of youth and getting old in the face of a life that doesn’t want you to change? I don’t really know what the Noah Baumbach of While We’re Young wants you to believe because it’s such a mess. Ultimately it says nothing more than anybody below 30-years-old is unsophisticated and artificial, and everybody over 30 is a whiny insecure jerk who will have to happily rely on their trust funds to get them through a tough day of living the good life on the Upper West Side. I usually couldn’t say that Noah Baumbach is out-of-touch with what it means to be young, but this movie is clear evidence that he’s out-of-touch with what it means to be both young and old, and that’s a pretty unfortunate place to be.