A loving ode to age

by Steve Pulaski

Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is a loving ode to age, cinema, and youthful idealism, showing the apparent generational differences that come to life when two couples, one in their mid-twenties and one approaching forty, are contrasted. We focus on Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a middle-aged couple who are leading a rocky marriage while living in New York. Josh has been working on his ambitious documentary for almost a decade, following success with his debut, and the couple are struggling with the possibility of having kids following two miscarriages. They watch all of their friends invest their entire lives in their children while they maintain an incredible amount of freedom but wade in the water instead of looking to seize it.

The two are then greeted by Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), whom Josh met while teaching a film class at a college. They go out to dinner to discover that Jamie is a documentarian himself, gaining a lot of influence from Josh’s films, while capitalizing off of his own plethora of ideas. He has several ideas for films, an extensive record collection, and many other projects he’d like to begin working on, and she makes her own ice cream, takes lessons in hip-hop dancing, and takes on the world with an impulsiveness. All of these traits make Josh and Cornelia drawn to this couple; as Cornelia tells a friend, it’s as if they predicate their lives around things that they themselves once had but threw out. They were these people until life happened and took that opportunity and ambitiousness away from them, so they believe.

While We’re Young
Written & Directed by
Noah Baumbach
Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver
Release Date
27 March 2015
Steve’s Grade: B+

In addition, Josh is struggling to finish his documentary due to disorganized continuity and a lack of funding from a grant he has relied on. No matter what he does, however, Josh feels inadequate alongside Cornelia’s father Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a renowned documentarian. This puts Josh at an increasing fascination at the idealism Jamie and Darby exude, and the opportunity to immerse himself in their lives arrives when Jamie announces production on his latest documentary, which transcends online interactions into personal ones.

Baumbach is in a great position to patronize or satirize the characters in While We’re Young, specifically the idealistic millennials who can occasionally seem to tread the line of being parodies (then again, they reside in New York, so perhaps they’re real-life souls). However, he is much too concerned with the metaphorical mirror Josh and Cornelia seem to be looking into when they go out with Jamie and Darby, and how time and lack of interest in personal enrichment has made them forget who they once were. Josh echoes an idea about his generation that I, a millennial myself, have long possessed about the generation of baby boomers and the generation before them; they are more concerned with success and results rather than the process it takes to obtain such things. The paycheck and their own line of work defines their self-worth rather than their own interests and how they choose to capitalize off their interests. Personally, I look at my parents and see two bright people defined almost entirely by their work and not by their own personalities, which too have been dictated by their fields and the immense amount of time they put into them.

While We’re Young doesn’t argue which lifestyle is better, whether millennials are simply impressionable and giddy with all the mediums to exercise their creativity, or if the baby boomer generation is really too concerned with personal self-worth based on occupation. We are given enough slack as audience members to make those kind of conclusions ourselves. Baumbach gives us the realistic interactions between two very different groups, analyzing common attributes about both, drawing characters that we can simultaneously like and dislike depending on circumstances, and sprinkle ample amounts of humor revolving around situational awkwardness or the generation gap itself. His treatment and handling of the material is perfect because it shows both respect and humor.

In many ways, this feels like the more sophisticated, humble version of This is 40, the follow up to Knocked Up, two films I hailed for painting age, both young and old, with a sense of realism and ribald comedy. While We’re Young is much more low-key, but it’s also given the Baumbach touch of showing not telling in the case of giving us characters rich with attributes and situations ripe with commentary for us to analyze and discuss. The film may not be quite as slight and elegant as his predecessor Frances Ha, but it operates on a different playing ground; I walked out of that film with a smile on my face and I walked out of this one with more in my mind to observe in the people I watch in my day to day life.