Writer-director Noah Baumbach has stealthily carved out a niche for himself in American film by chronicling the lives of articulate, creative New Yorkers, hampered by their neuroses and disappointed by their own real or imagined under-achievement. Stylistically, that makes him sound like a close neighbour of Woody Allen, but Baumbach is more sardonic; his dialogue underplays rather than flaunts his gags.
Yet even his films that miss the mark have charming, funny moments; I’m thinking here of Frances Ha (2012), a paper-thin tale about a ditzy, unfocussed and frankly irritating young woman vainly trying to make her way in the big city. But no such reservations attach to Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young, which casts a sceptical eye both on middle age (with Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as married fortysomethings) and on trend-conscious hipster youth (portrayed by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). An older generation gets a look-in too, of which more later.
Stiller is Josh, a documentary maker who had one critical success in his past but who has been labouring unhappily on his latest film for eight years. (This film is over six hours long, and he’s either too depressed or blocked to cut it down.) His wife Cornelia (Watts) works with her father Leslie (Charles Grodin), a respected veteran of documentary film-making. Josh and Cornelia are childless by choice, and are coming to realise their lives are joyless.
At this point, they encounter Jamie and Darby (Driver and Seyfried), a young, seemingly guileless couple, still enthusiastic about life and what it has to offer. Above all they have a quality Josh recognises he has lost: a generosity of spirit. Jamie (like half the characters in this story) is a documentary film-maker, though at the fledgling stage; after Josh gives a lecture to students, Jamie approaches him, makes admiring comments about Josh’s one successful foray into film, and starts up a friendship between the four of them.
There’s much witty observation about the lifestyle of Brooklyn hipsters (if the film were British, everyone in it would live in Shoreditch, or somewhere in east London.) Jamie and Darby are a hoot in their embrace of all things retro: they use typewriters, their record collection is all vinyl (as opposed to Josh’s stack of CDs.) They cycle, of course, or occasionally roller-blade; if they can’t quite recall a word, they consciously reject the option of Googling it, preferring instead to let their memories do the work, however slowly. How cool is that?
While We’re Young works well as a comedy about adjusting to middle age. In several telling sequences, Cornelia is gradually excluded by her girl-friends (all of them adoring mothers) because of her childlessness. She tries to make herself feel younger by dancing at a hip-hop dancing class: awkwardly at first, but then giving it all she’s got. In these scenes, Naomi Watts virtually steals the entire film.
Josh, meanwhile, is so charmed by Jamie’s attentions that he falls into the trap of striving for a youthfulness that in reality has passed him by. There’s a sharp lesson to be learned here for Josh and Cordelia, and it duly arrives.
An added bonus in the film comes in the shape of two fine performances by older actors: the subtle Charles Grodin (once a star in fine films like The Heartbreak Kid and Midnight Run) as Cornelia’s stern, idealistic father, who disapproves of Josh’s languid self-indulgence; and, as a grouchy elderly academic who makes long dry speeches to camera in Josh’s clearly hopeless new film, Peter Yarrow - who was once one third of the folk group Peter, Paul And Mary.
One could argue that Baumbach’s film only concerns itself with a narrow, somewhat precious layer of society. But you could say much the same about the works of Jane Austen and Henry James – and Baumbach’s droll treatment of his characters, indulging themselves by obsessing over what we might call ‘first world problems,’ is always evident. While We’re Young is a delightful, humane piece of work that casts its gaze on people’s faults and contradictions – and gives a kindly shrug.