“How did you stage that?” Jamie (Adam Driver) is asking about a scene where dogs are running through garbage on a street. It’s a scene he admires in a documentary by Josh (Ben Stiller), whom Jamie has just met and is trying to impress. Josh looks briefly startled by the question, then stumbles through an answer: “We were there,” he begins, “the dogs started running, and,” he adds, “I said, ‘Shoot that.'”
While Jamie vaguely nods here, not getting the joke, Josh’s surprise at the question sets up the distinction that While We’re Young will explore repeatedly, partly by way of Josh’s own worries about his lost youth, but also by way of some clichés concerning generational differences. Jamie assumes documentary reality is made up, or staged, while Josh remains a purist when it comes to his art. He’s also an anxious perfectionist, which both explains and aggravates the problem of his latest work, a documentary he’s been making for over a decade, based on too many interviews with an aging, rambling philosophy professor, apparently talking about “power in America”. Again and again, in scenes where Josh shoots or edits what he’s shot, his subject veers off, sometimes literally walking off set (in his apartment) to find the john, wired mic still attached.
That this work remains undone makes Josh more anxious, of course, particularly as he believes it disappoints his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a producer whose father, Leslie (Charles Grodin), is a renowned old-school vérité documentarian. The daddy issues multiply throughout While We’re Young, as Jamie intrudes on Josh’s relationships with his father-in-law and his wife, and as the 40something Josh and Cornelia fret about not having children, a project they undertook with some devotion years back, using hormones and spending lots of money. As their longtime friends Fletcher (Adam Horowitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia) show off their new infant and extol the wonders of parenthood, Josh and Cornelia look back blankly, then go home to Brooklyn, where they rationalize their situation. “The point is we have the freedom,” Josh says as the camera follows him around their perfectly appointed kitchen, “What we do with it is less important.”
They re-see their freedom reflected by Jamie and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), something of a gloss on the fascination with Greta Gerwig exhibited by Noah Baumbach’s previous film on this subject, Greenberg (in which Stiller also appeared). Darby’s wide-eyed doting on Jamie isn’t exactly infectious (“He’s always shooting,” she beams, while she supports them, sort of, by making designer ice creams), but it does help Josh to avoid thinking too hard about his own crush on the younger man, whom he takes to be as unformed and hopeful as he once was.
That Jamie isn’t nearly so unformed as Josh thinks (or hopes) is obvious in the way that such plot turns tend to be. Josh describes what he’s lost and what he sees in Jamie as “generosity”, a willingness to share, but that’s not what you see in Jamie, as the camera insists you notice how he doesn’t pay for anything, how he manipulates a meeting with Leslie, how he exploits Cornelia’s frustrations and Josh’s neediness. The story Josh tells himself — and Cornelia and you — about Jamie motivates his own efforts to change, or at least to acknowledge that changing might be good to contemplate.
Josh draws some lines. He’s right about documentary, he insists, and he’s horrified to learn that Leslie thinks otherwise, that really, “things change,” including how documentaries might be made and perceived. Josh bears a heavy seriousness with comic lightness, which makes him something of a Woody Allen character — that is, something of a cliché. As much as he embodies loss and yearning, the film tends to follow his lead, using Jamie and Cornelia as devices to tell his story (though seeing Naomi Watts swings her arms and pelvis to dance “hip-hop” reminds you that her performances are always committed).
Josh’s story is about his limited vision and so the film’s limits might be understood as his. It’s comical to a point, to see him so unaware of how media work now. But you can see too how his work and also the film he lives in can’t possibly be “objective,” a word he wields as if it’s a virtue in itself, not a fiction that artists and consumers of art tell themselves. Even as he might realize that his belief is just that, and not necessarily true, he hangs on to it. In this he’s partly object lesson, partly ethical warrior, partly comic foil. It might help his cause that Jamie is so patently crass and climbing, but not wholly. Josh’s truth is his, and that’s what he’s not quite able to see.