Aging is a universal anxiety. What our lives will look like in 5, 10 or 20 years (or maybe what our lives looked like 5, 10 or 20 years ago) seems to be of great concern to us all. Despite this truth, age has never felt so combative as it does in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young.
The flick stars Ben Stiller as Josh, a documentary filmmaker whose latest project has consumed the past ten years of his life. When a duo of artsy millennials named Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried) enter his tired, predictable existence, he and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) quickly go into mid-life crisis mode. What innocently starts as wearing fedoras and going out to late night gay bars transforms into something more invasive. Suddenly Jamie has a grand documentary project of his own and his desire to succeed starts to intrude its way into Josh’s life.
While We’re Young hits all the little clichés about 21st century youth, almost to the point of overkill. Jamie and Darby watch VHS tapes on a tube TV, have a pet chicken named Niko and consider listening to Billy Ocean on vinyl a favored pastime. For someone whose career has been built upon youth culture, Baumbach sure does like to make fun of hipsters. Though the ridiculous situations he creates are sometimes quite comical, they collectively feel a tad malicious.
At some point in the narrative, it becomes clear that there’s a brooding, underlying sense of anger in the humor. The comedy in making fun of Jamie and Darby doesn’t really feel well-intentioned, but rather constructed to pit the young and old against each other. At one point in the film, Josh laments that today’s youth are spoiled, manipulative and entitled. This never seems to be challenged, instead embraced as total and complete fact. Somehow Josh misses the irony of how he could feel that today’s youth are entitled and spoiled, while he continues to live a well-connected, upper-class life in Manhattan without producing a single piece of work in ten years.
In contrast, with his previous film Frances Ha, Baumbach explored the life of a young woman who was similarly characteristic of modern youth. Greta Gerwig’s Frances was quirky, unfocused and all about the bohemian New York city lifestyle. She had definite flaws in that her energy and brightness never seemed to manifest into anything constructive, but the criticism felt consensual. Frances is scattered, but lovely. She is a challenging, three-dimensional depiction of contemporary youth, while Jamie and Darby are caricatures of it.
The blending of cultures between Josh and Jamie feels particularly unpleasant. Jamie’s affection for old music and TV is portrayed as insincere and unappreciative and when Josh dons a more youthful appearance himself, it’s as something completely ridiculous and out-of-touch. While We’re Young somehow manages to create a strict binary in age that shames any sort of intermingling between its two sides. While it serves the narrative well in being a dependable source for laughter, it fails to create any sort of constructive or intelligent argument.
Baumbach has done a lot of intelligent work in the past, and despite its failings, While We’re Young isn’t necessarily an exception. The dialogue is very well-crafted, Stiller is absolutely perfect casting and there’s even some interesting ideas at play about the nature of the artistic process. It’s just a shame that the film fails to go beyond its simplistic and bitter view of cross-generational relationships.