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“While We’re Young” opens with 40-somethings Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) struggling to make sense of their friends’ newborn baby — and adulthood in general. Just entering middle-age, Josh and Cornelia are dealing with childlessness and Josh’s own occupational angst as a documentary filmmaker. Their lives are shaken up by the self-diagnosed “pathologically happy” Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried).
The younger couple lead a life which appears totally spontaneous and genuine, complete with old-timey typewriters and Darby’s homemade ice cream. Jamie and Josh share a passion for documentary filmmaking, and the two quickly develop a friendship that is both personal and professional. Moved by the liveliness of their new 20-something friends, Cornelia takes hip-hop dance classes and Josh begins wearing a fedora — a questionable decision at any age. “You’re an old man with a hat,” quips one of Josh’s friends.
More than fedoras and homemade ice cream, “While We’re Young” looks at the generation gap which separates the two couples. Thrilled at first by the sincerity and energy, which come so easily to Jamie and Darby, Josh and Cornelia become suspicious of the qualities that first drew them in. When Josh and Jamie begin working on a documentary together, their age gap continues to be highlighted for laughs, but tensions rise as the differences in their filmmaking philosophies become apparent.
In several scenes, quiet moments between characters are interrupted by Jamie, holding his GoPro camera close to the drama. Moments like these act as a running gag, but also cast doubt on Jamie’s sincerity, and cause the viewer to ask if he and his ilk are as genuine as they appear, or if they are just experiencing as much as they can so that it can be documented. Jamie defends these and other actions, saying, “We all want stuff. It doesn’t mean we’re douchebags.”
Moviegoers may better remember director Noah Baumbach for the pair of movies he’s co-written with Wes Anderson: “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Both Baumbach and Anderson share a love for dysfunctional, eccentric characters.
But without all the stylistic charms — or killer soundtrack — of a Wes Anderson film, Baumbach’s protagonists can come across as outright unlikable. While Anderson lets us see his characters’ antics in the prettiest possible way, Baumbach — like Stiller’s Josh — is more documentary, letting the weight of selfish or hurtful actions be felt. (And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.)
Before watching Baumbach’s last two movies — “Greenberg” and “Frances Ha” — I expected safe-but-quirky romantic comedies about crazy-yet-lovable people, but found something entirely different. Instead of smiling as the credits rolled, I felt a pit in my stomach — you know, the kind of catharsis that goes with movies that aren’t ’90s teen comedies.
But “While We’re Young” is different. Baumbach has found a middle ground between more outright happy-buddy movies and past comedic character sketches. Without glossing over the harshness of his characters, Baumbach has created a more traditional comedy which manages to avoid the contrived misunderstandings, which take the place of actual conflict in lots of comedies.
The joy of the film lies not only in the generation gap between characters, but between its two male leads as well. The days of “Meet the Parents” and “Zoolander” far behind him, Ben Stiller is graceful as the object of jokes throughout the film while still more than convincingly comedic himself. (Wouldn’t Derek Zoolander cry if he saw the fedora stuck on Ben Stiller’s head for half of “While We’re Young?”)
At the same time, Adam Driver’s quirky line deliveries and distinct cadence endear him to the viewer just as his character charms Josh and Cornelia. While their characters find themselves alternately at odds and in agreement with each other, Stiller and Driver anchor both the comedy and the generational difference of “While We’re Young.”
Through the movie, Baumbach doesn’t strong-arm the audience into accepting the viewpoint of either generation. And though the film questions the sincerity of the younger generation while showcasing the aimlessness of its older cast, it never feels cynical or disdainful toward either.