Published Jun 30, 2015Noah Baumbach's success is partially owed to his ear for upper-middle-class, faux-academic New York dialogue. His characters are educated artists riddled with references, quotes and affectations made idiosyncratic and contrary by their inability to sustain the performance of this highly projected and artificial image. These people are narcissists that define themselves by finding arbitrary reasons to feel superior to others.
It's like the contrary parallel of a West Coast identity performance — wherein consumer excess and fiscal success is exaggerated — eschewing all things seemingly superficial and populist for a very specific, yet similarly assimilative, niche idea of what an artist should be. They only listen to vinyl to project how much better they appreciate music than all of those using iTunes; they don't use Facebook because they, unlike all of the people they feel superior to, prefer actual human interaction; they only eat raw foods because they care more about their bodies than all of the people eating normal food. It all adds up, and it's all a lot of work to maintain, which is where Baumbach finds the comedy and shred of humanity in people incapable of humour and sincerity.
What's odd about While We're Young is that, despite featuring these exact character archetypes, it's fashioned as a very conventional film. The comedy is quite broad and the characters arcs predictable, making it feel very much like a standard forgettable indie comedy that the characters within would scoff at and dismiss as commercial fluff (if they dared watch something that wasn't a documentary).
Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are aging artists. Josh is a documentarian that's lost his edge (he's been working on his latest project for nearly a decade and still doesn't have a focus) and Cornelia is a producer, the daughter of a renowned documentarian (Charles Grodin). By coincidence, Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring documentarian, and Darby, (Amanda Seyfried), his wife — both in their mid-twenties — when they attend one of his lectures and demonstrate a keen knowledge of his documentary, which is incidentally only available on VHS.
Most of the comedy and development stems from the generational divide between the couples. Josh and Cornelia feel disconnected from their best friends — who are all about their new baby — and view their developing friendship with these kids as a wake-up call. Jamie and Darby very much represent the ideals and concepts that they've long since tossed away for the creature comforts following success.
Though the comedy of generational difference — Josh enthusiastically adopts every vulgar affectation Jamie has — never really works (it's very mid-'90s sitcom), there is something clever about the building of the relationship as a second coming-of-age. The trope here is that of over-idealizing an exciting newcomer only to eventually realize that they're just another shitty human being. Amidst that are observations about how eventually life erodes the youthful indulges that once defined a mostly presentational identity.
These insights and Baumbach's position that nostalgia — here represented by a younger couple — is little more than a whimsical look at only the surface ideals of what the reality was, are resonant, adding depth to the film. Baumbach understands these characters well, and has a comprehensive grasp on the world they inhabit. It's just a shame that there's really no use of form to match content — unless the generic structure is a nod to the complacency of the older generation — and no bite to the eventual revelations. It's all pretty banal and predictable.
It's this odd, fangless safety that makes While We're Young a bit of an oddity for Baumbach. The characters are gross but mostly harmless; it even verges on cutesy. None of this is discussed in the similarly banal and humdrum supplements — complimentary interview clips — which isn't a surprise for such a mediocre project.