I’m 26 and have been out of college for longer than I was actually in it, yet feel no closer to being an adult, even as gray hairs increasingly color my beard. I know this isn’t a unique feeling, and it’s one of many themes explored in While We’re Young, which might be writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most universal film.
With their two best friends Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) joining the parenting bandwagon, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) feel like the only one of their contemporaries not having children. On the surface, they appear content with that. They don’t want children they insist, they love their freedom. While they haven’t taken a trip in years, they like having the flexibility, the ability to be spontaneous should they choose. But in the opening moments, it’s clear that spontaneity drifted away from their lives and relationship a while ago, the brief fantasy of an impulsive trip to Paris exactly that, an idea that’s as impossible for them as it would be for new parents’ Marina and Fletcher.
That’s why Josh grasps so hard onto the young, vibrant and impossibly hipster power couple Jamie (Adam Driver, reuniting with Baumbach after Frances Ha) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) who introduce themselves after auditing his class on documentary filmmaking. Jamie is a mercurial young documentary filmmaker and a fan of Josh’s, and Darby is a bubbly wallflower who makes her own ice cream for no other reason than because she loves it. That, of course, hasn’t stopped her from trying to sell it to local grocery stores. They own all the records, have a chicken and cats named Good Cop and Bad Cop. Their only ambition is to not grow up to be assholes, a trajectory that Josh has already reached. The casting in While We’re Young is perfect, with Charles Grodin’s titanic documentary filmmaker (and Cornelia’s father) Leslie Breitbart imposing his will on every scene he’s in.
Quickly, Jamie and Darby usher Josh and Cornelia into their all-encompassing brand of Williamsburg hipster living. The result is a fizzy and hilarious series of sequences, as Josh starts rollerblading and wearing douchey hats and Cornelia takes hip-hop dance lessons. The absolute lack of ego shown by Watts and Stiller making fools of themselves brought me all kinds of joy. Considering Noah Baumbach is known for making people uncomfortable, I was shocked by the comedy of the first couple of acts. The first half of While We’re Young is a gleeful premise based sketch that simply boils down to Old People Try To Do Young People Things. It’s over the top, ridiculous and farcical, but While We’re Young still somehow feels painfully realistic. Whenever we make a new friend, we unconsciously adopt their tendencies, hobbies and mannerisms. Sometimes, you adopt everything.
The friendship is too good to be true from the start (their chance meeting so obviously staged), but like Josh and Cornelia, I was content to ignore the signs thanks to some of the best montages you’ll see in a movie. A glorious drug trip (but of course!) starts to reveal the truth, and the next half of the film revels in the lies we tell ourselves and others. Neither half is subtle, while the dramatic conclusion suffers from heavy-handedness (the climax revolves around the time honored ceremony and speech plot point) and is almost too clever and self-aware to get out of its own way.
As we learn more about Jamie and (obviously) learn that he’s not all that he purports to be, we almost don’t care. That’s partly because Adam Driver is a compelling supernova of an actor, his energy operating on a frequency most humans will never discover, let alone maintain (I’m surprised Driver and Oscar Isaac haven’t imploded the galaxy on the set of Star Wars Episode VII, costarring again after Inside Llewyn Davis). Driver’s ascent to Hollywood stardom mirrors his character’s rise in this film; is he a charlatan, playing us for fools, stealing someone else’s story? With social media and technological advancements, the line between sharing and stealing has blurred beyond recognition. Does it even matter? As the stubborn Josh finds out, the world has changed without him, and the values he believes are important just aren’t anymore.
Oscar Wilde believed “youth is wasted on the young.” In While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach instead argues that we’re “Forever Young,” children imitating adults, and showcases the problems Bob Dylan’s anthem presents. What makes someone an adult? Age? Maturity? Having children or dependents of your own? Having a job? Responsibility? Self-sufficiency? There isn’t a satisfying answer to this haunting social ideal and elusive concept, and Baumbach certainly doesn’t expect to find one, even if he nearly loses himself along the way.
While We’re Young is now playing in New York and L.A., and arrives nationwide this Friday, April 10th.