I guess Karolyn and I were meant to relate to this salty comedy-drama, the latest New York story from writer-director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding”). After all, it stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as Cornelia and Josh, 44 and 43 respectively: exactly the same age as Karolyn and me. Josh is a hapless documentarian who teaches documentary haplessly. Cornelia is a producer. The picture's theme is middle age, and you will recognize your own life up there on the screen to a certain extent, if you’re of a certain age and an urban dweller. And yet, while not as sour as something like Apatow’s “This is 40,” there’s still something about “While We’re Young” that’s a bit of a downer, that feels a bit tired.
Their longtime best friends, Naomi and Ben, played by Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz (Ad Roc of the Beastie Boys), like Josh and Cornelia in their forties, have just popped out a baby. Horovitz is nicely cast, graying but still with a boyish twinkle in his eye. Amusingly, he displays that great emblem of middle-aged-dad life: a Wilco CD. At the same time, they meet a couple in their twenties: Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who turn up at the end of Josh’s class. Jamie presents himself as an aspiring documentarian who sees Josh as something of a mentor. And if Jamie just happens to be around when there is an opportunity to schmooze with Charles Grodin, who plays Cornelia’s father, a veteran and respected documentarian? Why, that’s just a coincidence, of course.
As a satirical target, young hipsters, for whom everything they “like”--from Oreos to “Rocky III”--is enjoyed through at least three or four layers of irony, is not exactly fresh. (This is the variety of hipster that apparently obtains in Brooklyn, where young people make things. Darby, who is actually quite sweet and wise enough to see through a lot of the posturing around her, makes ice cream.) On the scale of things to be worried about, hipsters strike me as pretty benign.
Still, “While We’re Young” is fitfully amusing, full of visual jokes and signifiers, many of them sartorial. Josh takes to wearing a hat. (Hey! Having a go at 40-something guys who take up wearing hats, are we? That one hits a bit close to home, Baumbach! No, I can take a little ribbing.) Josh and Cornelia go a little mad, have a bit of a midlife crisis. There is a scene of a hallucinogen-taking party with a fake swami where everybody dresses in white robes; it goes for the gross-out and is pretty droll. Well, we are in our twenties, Darby says to herself before taking her dosage. I’m 43, says Cornelia more skeptically as she gets hers.
“We were just 25, weren’t we?” says Josh to Cornelia when she questions him about hanging out with Jamie so much. That’s the relatable, even poignant part: that feeling. How quickly we arrived at middle age. It’s amusing when Josh’s doctor tells him he has arthritis. Wait, he says: not arthritis arthritis?
For at least 10 years Josh has been tinkering with a documentary about a Noam Chomsky-like leftist thinker (Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary). He and his long-suffering editor (Matthew Mather) have become such a fixture in this man’s life that he no longer shuts the door around them when he goes to the bathroom. The film gets comic mileage when Maher cuts from young Josh at the beginning of this odyssey, earnestly questioning the scholar, to Josh today: graying, wrinkled, still chatting away. We can see that this “Q&A” will go on forever, that this man will die before Josh ever finishes.
As Josh, Stiller isn’t stretching himself here like he did in Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” but he’s in pleasant hem-hawing mode. His comic timing is as fine as ever. I always like to see him, and it’s been fun to watch him age (and to age with him). Naomi Watts is about the best actress out there, and while this is not perhaps the part she’ll be remembered for, she’s very good. Cornelia goes to a rough ‘n’ raw hip-hop class with Darby, and when she starts to get into the energy of the unbelievably rude music (just as rude as in my day), she is funny enough. She is also poignantly vulnerable and touching, as a woman who did want to have a baby once, but had a miscarriage. Now, she feels, that ship has sailed. She’s torn.
This picture seeks to be how we live now. There is disturbed veteran of Afghanistan, Benny (Matthew Shear), a former classmate of Jamie’s. They reconnect via social media: the idea is that Jamie, who has no Facebook account (proudly) will open one, and then he will go and physically greet the first person to “friend” him, with a documentary crew in tow. That the first person just happened to be Benny, whose story seems tailor-made for a documentary? Well, that must be just another of those mysterious coincidences that seem to accrue to Jamie.
I like Baumbach. I would compare “While We’re Young” to one of Woody Allen’s second-tier pictures, one of the ones that feels a bit arch but still gives you things to think about and feel, and which still has bits you’ll think about fondly later.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)