Lawrence Toppman

‘While We’re Young’ feels like an old idea

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are middle-aged marrieds Josh and Cornelia in the new dramedy “While We’re Young.”
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are middle-aged marrieds Josh and Cornelia in the new dramedy “While We’re Young.” A24 Films

“While We’re Young” is, in part, about documentary filmmakers who debate again and again whether they have enough material to finish a movie. I wondered if writer-director Noah Baumbach couldn’t decide about his own project, because he switches gears dramatically midway. I responded more strongly to the film he started to make than the one he ended with.

He begins with Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), who have reached their mid-40s with no children – she has miscarried twice, so they’ve given up – and some kind of financial situation in which she doesn’t need to work. (She used to produce documentaries for her famous dad, Leslie Breitman, but he hasn’t made one in years.) Josh has a teaching job and has spent a decade playing around with a political-themed documentary no one wants to see.

Into Josh’s continuing education class come Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a married couple in their 20s. The four become friends, and their lives start to morph into each other: The older couple admires the younger’s spontaneity and freedom, while Jamie hopes to follow in Josh’s filmmaking footsteps.

Baumbach teases both generations. He laughs at Josh’s desire to imitate the young because he feels irrelevant and passed over, and he mocks Jamie and Darby’s visit to a spiritual healer who gives them hallucinogens and advises them to “puke up your demons” into buckets. Yet it’s half-hearted joking: Baumbach doesn’t seem interested enough in any of these people to want us to love them or ridicule them.

Then the film swerves. Suddenly it’s about what documentary truth might be and whether someone’s a villain for tampering with the way it’s presented. This seems a small matter for Josh, Jamie and Breitman (Charles Grodin) to gnaw over, and the film starts to peter out as they do. The resolution limply ties together the two plot threads and plays as a sop to Gen X-ers in the audience questioning their own paths as they age.

The actors all give satisfyingly conventional performances. Seyfried’s character remains too flat for her to raise it, but the other three leads win us over across the arc of the film. Grodin, always welcome at 80, seems the realest person among the five leads.

In fact, the whole story works better as a fantasy than a depiction of reality. Josh and Cornelia live disproportionately well in the heart of Manhattan. Jamie and Darby seem like symbols: She makes her own ice cream, he builds his own furniture, and they watch movies on VHS tapes and listen only to LP records. (He has bought thousands – again, with no obvious income.)

Toppman: 704-358-5232

REVIEW

‘While We’re Young’

Minor effort about a childless couple in their 40s questioning their values and becoming enamored of people in their 20s who seem to have their lives together.

C+ STARS: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin.

WRITER-DIRECTOR: Noah Baumbach.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes.

RATING: R (language).

Chapel Hill: Chelsea.

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