“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.” — Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
We all have to grow up at some point. For Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a Gen X couple in New York City, growing up sucks. Their friends Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) have it all figured out with successful careers and a new child, and they can barely manage to order take-out.
They’re having a mid-life crisis. Josh, a documentary filmmaker, aspires to be as accomplished as his adored father-in-law (Charles Grodin), but struggles to complete his latest project about a war historian, played hilariously by Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary in his first film role. Cornelia convinces herself that she is free from the responsibilities of motherhood, but she hasn’t found a fulfilling alternative. One day, Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a 20-something hipster couple, and agrees to have lunch with them. What could possibly go wrong?
A hilarious montage in the beginning of the film establishes the differences between the two married couples. In their spare time, Jamie and Darby play board games, read books, and write with typewriters. Josh and Cornelia watch Netflix, surf the web, and play games on iPads. Jamie brags about his avoidance of Facebook, and Darby boasts about her homemade ice cream with avocado. Jamie and Darby are that slightly charming, overall obnoxious hipster couple who listen to Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” unironically, and Josh and Cornelia are that somewhat sympathetic, mostly desperate Gen X couple who hate hipsters like Jamie and Darby but hang out with them anyway to fill a void.
The film’s title implies that Baumbach is interested in the process of aging, but the film is less about “acting your age” and more about embracing your authentic self. The problem with Josh and Cornelia is not that they experiment with millennial hipster culture, but that they do it for all the wrong reasons. For example, Josh copies Jamie’s fashion sense and starts to wear a fedora, but only to look cool in front of Jamie. Cornelia takes hip-hop dance lessons with Darby, but only to make an impression. Josh and Cornelia’s desire to be young again is common and understandable, but Baumbach is skeptical of their disingenuous approach.
At the same time, he highlights the hypocrisy of Jamie and Darby’s hipsterdom. They present themselves as pure souls free from the constraints of American capitalism and technological advancement. However, an important revelation in the third act demonstrates that they are just as dishonest as Josh and Cornelia. Baumbach doesn’t prescribe age roles to the audience, but he is critical of his characters’ appropriation of the other generation’s culture for perception’s sake. His closeness in age to the Gen Xers shouldn’t scare anyone away. While We’re Young is an even-handed satire, and each generation is skewered equally.
It’s tempting to classify the film as a critique of narcissistic Gen Xers and millennial hipsters, but I don’t think Baumbach wants to be that historically or culturally specific. He opens the film with dialogue from Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play The Master Builder, in which the aging Halvard Solness wonders if he should “open the door” to a younger generation. This suggests that the film’s theme transcends any one generation or counterculture. Throughout human history, the old have envied and emulated the young, and the young have taken advantage of this.
And yet, as universal as the film’s message is, it’s also distinctly about New York City. Or, perhaps more fittingly, it challenges so many common conceptions people have about New York City. New York promises an alternative lifestyle, and to many rebels around the world, it represents a sanctuary from convention and conformity. It’s where you go when you want to be somewhere. However, when you take away the ethnic restaurants and the art galleries, you’re left with people like Josh and Cornelia who get old and die like everyone else. No amount of culture can alleviate the anxiety that comes with aging. Like the best films set in New York, While We’re Young captures the specific cultural milieu, only to show that after a while it is meaningless to the characters. While you’re young, New York is a playground, but when you get old, it’s potentially a prison.
Baumbach’s comedies are character-focused and dialogue-driven, and his high culture references appeal to the intellectual elite. As a result, critics often compare him to Woody Allen. Just as Allen references Federico Fellini and Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall (1977), for example, Baumbach references Frederick Wiseman and Sergei Eisenstein in While We’re Young. Baumbach’s satirical tone shows that he shares Allen’s contempt for the intelligentsia, and yet, like the legendary New York filmmaker, he somehow manages to receive high praise from the very people he regularly mocks in his films. Make no mistake: pretentious narcissists like Josh, Cornelia, Jamie, and Darby will consume this film like catnip, blithely unaware of its blatant condemnation of their culture. This will forever baffle me, and perhaps it proves Baumbach’s point about his characters in the first place.
The lame special features on the Blu-ray are brief, obligatory behind-the-scenes clips, which is a shame because the film is worth watching more than once. The performances are full of subtleties. Stiller is an underrated actor. His work in Heavy Weights (1995), Zoolander (2001), and Dodgeball (2004) is hilarious, and his recent collaborations with Baumbach in both Greenberg (2010) and While We’re Young show his softer side. Watts similarly steps out of her comfort zone, and it’s a hoot to see her lighten up after a string of depressing dramas. Driver and Seyfried bring a lot of personality to the hipster couple, and show why they are so in-demand at the moment. Grodin, Horovitz, Dizzia, and Dree Hemingway as Jamie and Darby’s free-spirited roommate each give fine turns in their small but significant supporting roles.
The aforementioned third act revelations offer an interesting thematic idea, but they don’t ring true dramatically. Once Josh learns important information about Jamie and Darby, the tone of the film drastically shifts to darkness, and Josh makes a number of decisions that are difficult to believe. In particular, he delivers a big speech that spells out the film’s entire theme, and it undermines the subtle comic realism of the first two acts. At this point, the character-focused qualities of Baumbach’s best work are unnecessarily pushed aside for plot and theme. Still, this is a minor flaw, and for the most part, While We’re Young is among the best films of 2015 thus far.