There’s a telling moment in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, in which Josh, a middle-aged documentarian played by Ben Stiller, attends a party un-self-consciously sporting a woven fedora. “You’re an old man with a hat,” his friend blurts out. The line may be an easy laugh, but to Josh it’s a stinging slap in the face that forces him to reflect upon the recent vacation he’s been taking from adulthood—the hat is a stylistic nod to his new, drastically younger friend Jamie (Adam Driver). A comedy about the allure of youth and the frustrations of aging, like all of Baumbach’s work While We’re Young finds its footing somewhere between cynicism and sensitivity, this time proving that the old adage you’re only as old as you feel can only be stretched so far.
Josh and his wife Cornelia (an effortlessly funny Naomi Watts) are officially the last of their peer group without children: their closest friends, played by Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz, have just had a baby and are strenuously urging them to jump on the bandwagon and procreate. But the two happen to like their freedom, even if it isn’t entirely by choice: “We can fly to Paris on a moment’s notice,” Cornelia says. As the conversation takes a comic turn toward the difficulty of finding a decent fare for a last-minute flight, however, it’s clear that all the passion and spontaneity Josh and Cornelia once shared has been stomped out somewhere on the road to 40.
The couple finds the perfect antidote to the dull ache of discontent in the 25-year-old Jamie and his wife Darby (a wide-eyed Amanda Seyfried). In a classically staged seduction, Jamie gushes about Josh’s little-known first film (which he’s managed to track down on eBay) and Josh, completely smitten, winds up picking up the check at dinner.
Playing on the hipster habit of prizing of all things retro, the film leaves no stone unturned in pitting the Bushwick Bohemians against the older yuppies. One particularly economical montage shows Josh and Cornelia hooked into various i-products in their endlessly beige apartment, while Jamie and Darby are sprawled out on colorful vintage furniture watching VHS tapes, listening to vinyl, and playing outmoded board games.
The bite of Baumbach’s wit has always been firmly grounded in the absurdity of the familiar; if his characters find themselves stuck in clichéd scenarios, the way they move—and speak—within them never ceases to entertain. “It’s like their apartment is filled with things we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it!” Cornelia excitedly exclaims.
Although ostensibly an ensemble piece, the male relationship cum rivalry eventually becomes the film’s emotional core, and with Stiller diminutive beside Driver’s towering frame, Josh and Jamie make for an endearing odd couple in matching wing-tip shoes. Having been stuck on the same arcane, decidedly non-commercial project for the past decade, Josh feels an entire career’s worth of pride and self-doubt come bubbling to the surface as Jamie’s first film enjoys instantaneous payoff—and worse, garners the approval of Cornelia’s father, the renowned documentarian Leslie Breitbart (an excellent Charles Grodin).
In one of his best and most earnest roles, Stiller embodies the same brand of beleaguered moral idealism as he did in his own The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (though thankfully he has stronger material to work with here). And while the film never aligns itself with Jamie’s point of view, Driver is able to gradually reveal the depth (or, more aptly, the calculated shallowness) beneath his character’s stylish affectation: Josh, as it turns out, is merely another old collectable for Jamie’s gainful amusement.
While We’re Young benefits as much from the buoyancy of youth as it does from the wisdom of age—even its frustratingly conventional ending is somewhat offset by the thematic heft insisted upon by the opening quote from Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Beneath the onslaught of contemporary in-jokes and one bad fedora, Baumbach manages to articulate, with a great deal of poignancy, the timeless challenge of aging and the challenge of ageing timelessly.