“We missed our chance,” says Cornelia (Naomi Watts), one of the protagonists of While We’re Young, about not having any children. “I’m fine with that.” But the tone of her voice implies she’s trying to persuade herself that she and her husband Josh (Ben Stiller), who are in their mid-40s and the only ones in their circle of friends without kids, didn’t make a mistake. The couple feels left out when they visit their best pals Fletcher and Marina (former Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz and Maria Dizzia), whose lives changed with the arrival of a new child. Cornelia and Josh try to play along, but they come off like aliens from another planet, unable to relate to matters involving diaper changes and baby’s first words.
“We have freedom,” Josh rationalizes, convincing no one, including himself. “What we do with it isn’t important.” In its first half, While We’re Young plays to the strengths of writer-director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Frances Ha), a master of comic explorations of people at a crossroads in life, taking stock of their achievements and paralyzed by the fear of failure. Josh is a filmmaker who has been working on his second documentary for years without much luck, trying unsuccessfully to pare it down from its current running time of 10 hours. He’s in the throes of a major sophomore slump (shades of Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys), but he’s heartened after he meets a young couple, Jamie (a terrifically oddball Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who are big fans of his work and obsess unironically over the detritus of his youth (Rocky III, VHS tapes, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger).
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Jamie and Darby are prototypical twentysomething Brooklyn hipsters, but Josh and Cornelia realize they have more in common with these young, impetuous kids than they do with their peers. While We’re Young, which opens with a title card quoting Ibsen’s The Master Builder, is a wistful comedy about aging Generation Xers finding new life and direction by hanging out with Millennials, even though everyone — from Baumbach to the audience — knows such a bond won’t hold. Everything is fun at first: Hip-hop dance classes! Vinyl LPs! Getting high at communal drug retreats! Helping matters is that Jamie professes to be a huge fan of Josh’s first film: The constant flattery proves addictive. And these kids are so cool, such old souls, they’re not even on Facebook! Who cares about age differences? What matters is the here and now, and life for Josh and Cornelia becomes a lot more fun after they start hanging out with two people young enough to be their kids.
While We’re Young is so good at depicting the comical lengths we sometimes go to in order to deny our realities, it’s all the more heartbreaking when the film starts to focus on the elements you care about least, such as Josh’s problematic documentary. Charles Grodin shows up as Cornelia’s father Leslie, a celebrated filmmaker who tries to advise Josh on his movie. “Your first film, we could see ourselves in,” Leslie tells him. “In the second one, it feels like you took your ball and went home.” The same goes for While We’re Young, which grows increasingly less accessible and archer, with characters spouting dialogue conveying their world outlook that’s too literal and on-the-nose (only Horowitz fares well in a moment of soul-baring honesty, when he admits that fatherhood hasn’t changed his life the way everyone promised it would).
Eventually, Baumbach makes clear distinctions between good guys and bad, and you can see the movie losing interest in its two female leads, relegating them to the sidelines in the way lesser filmmakers often do. One of the most appealing qualities of Baumbach’s previous films was their ability to reflect real life back at us in thoughtful, humane ways, regardless of the sex of his protagonist. While We’re Young starts off as an empathetic, funny look at middle age and winds up as profound and schematic as a Neil Simon play — or, for the younger set, an episode of The New Girl.
Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz, Maria Dizzia.
Writer-director: Noah Baumbach.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 97 minutes. Vulgar language, drug use, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.