While We’re Young

2014, USA, 97 min.

Getting old doesn’t just happen. You age every day, until like Cornelia and Josh in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, you wonder how the hell you got here. The bittersweet fun of Baumbach’s tart comedy is how Cornelia and Josh keep dodging the hard truth: they don’t have the energy—or the stomach—to stay young. Yet they try longer than they should. We understand why. We’ve been there or soon will be. Reality bites.

The irony is that Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and Josh’s (Ben Stiller) life together is, by any measure, enviable. They live in a lovely, New York City apartment and seem to make a comfortable living in documentary filmmaking. They’re attractive and fit. But they’ve reached their 40s, the great middle. Routine has calcified. Ambition has been put on hold. And with kids off the table, what’s left?

Josh, however, is keeping busy. His rambling documentary—“Really, it’s about America” is his go-to description—is six hours long and in its eighth year of production. And he’s teaching a community college course. That’s where he meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a 20-something couple who don’t embody the hipster label as much as parody it. Jamie says he’s auditing the course. It is the first lie of many.

Jamie is a fan of Josh’s obscure first film and he’s an aspiring documentarian. Could they talk? Josh is delighted, considering he’s not even the best documentary filmmaker in his own family. Cornelia’s father (Charles Grodin) has that honor. Josh relishes the attention, but Jamie is more than an appreciative audience. There’s a youthful, infectious confidence to him. Cornelia, who joins them, is skeptical: “It’s almost like he was studying you.” Josh is smitten, and when he and Cornelia visit the youngsters’ apartment and sample Darby’s homemade ice cream, they’re both officially enchanted.  

Darby and Jamie’s apartment—dig the huge, album collection; check out the handmade desk—represents Cornelia and Josh’s frozen youth. They’ve spent their life trying to stay relevant. Now, Cornelia and Josh get permission to sit with the cool kids while their friends—saddled with babies and adult responsibilities—suck up to the teachers.

What Cornelia and Josh don’t ask is why Darby and Jamie are so smitten with them. That’s where Baumbach’s refusal to deify his characters proves effective. He shows Cornelia and Josh away from the block parties and fedora shops. They are deep into the vast, vanilla middle of adulthood: fussing over the brightness of the bedside lamp’s light bulb and justifying how the beauty of their independence is that they can choose to waste it.

For all their experience, Cornelia and Josh can’t see that Jamie and Darby aren’t befriending them out of human kindness. Baumbach unfurls Jamie’s motives. Sometimes it’s done in front of Josh, like not picking up a check or asking Josh how he staged a scene. Sometimes it’s less subtle, like Jamie giving Josh a pep talk and then his face turning to stone as soon as Josh leaves. Driver’s performance is arguably the best in the veteran cast. We don’t know whether to slap him or emulate his drive. Neither do Cornelia and Josh.

Despite his cynicism, Baumbach (The Squid and the WhaleGreenberg) has sympathy for this screwed-up bunch. Jamie’s ambition and craftiness would be admirable if he didn’t use people as props, or kitsch as a guiding principle. He’s misguided, just like Josh, who napalmed his relationship with Cornelia’s father in the name of integrity. And it’s why he gravitates toward Jamie and agrees to work on his film. Jamie is Josh’s last chance at redemption, a concept that’s as poorly defined as his documentary’s plot.

Baumbach’s bristling honesty is what makes While We’re Young so vibrant. Nobody is right. Age doesn’t give you answers and youth doesn’t make you pure. It’s easiest to be yourself. The real problem, Baumbach tells us, is discovering exactly what that is—and whom we allow to show us.