Ever since Noah Baumbach debuted in the 90s indie filmmaking scene with Kicking And Screaming (not that one), he’s been a master of embittered comedy. His sometimes nasty and always dark wit delivers the type of laughs that tend to stick in your throat and sting just a little bit. Which is why it was a surprise that Baumbach’s last movie was the unexpectedly warm-hearted and even mildly inspiring (at least until second viewing) Frances Ha. Teaming up with Greta Gerwig, Baumbach delivered a nostalgic ode to 20-something listlessness and as close to a populist movie as he’s personally capable of (just ignore the fact that he wrote on a Madagascar movie, it’s not worth thinking about). It seemed like perhaps Baumbach had softened and then along came While We’re Young to set the record straight. It’s a typically caustic and clever comedy from the writer/director and one that specifically makes the point that 20-somethings are a group of self-entitled idiots. Of course, it’s a more complicated movie than that. But it is undeniably amusing to see Baumbach suck all of the joy of Francis Ha out of the theatre with his follow up.
The story follows Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a middle aged couple who have grown accustomed to watching the world pass them by. They decided not to have kids, but all of their friends did, leaving the duo without much of a social life beyond attending increasingly unwelcome dinner parties filled with ankle-biters. Most of the time, they waste away their evenings distracting themselves with dueling iPads. Stiller is a documentary filmmaker who has spent years toiling away on a boring and unfocused project to follow up his promising debut. Watts’ father is a beloved (and Criterion approved) documentarian played by the always welcome Charles Grodin (seriously, how did it take this long for Grodin to grace a Baumbach joint?) and the two have clashed endlessly over their generational differences. Salvation arrives when Stiller makes friends with 20-something hipster douches played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Stiller is blown away by their porkpie hats, VHS/vinyl collections, and ironic appreciation of everything that he used to hate. Soon Stiller and Watts start playing young and hanging out with all the cool kids. Stiller even starts collaborating on a doc with Driver that could revitalize his career. It seems as though the couple might have finally pulled themselves out of their rut. Well, that is unless you’ve ever seen a Baumbach movie of course. Then you’ll know this is all just set up for a big failure.
First and foremost, it has to be stated that this just might be Baumbach’s funniest feature to date. Hipster bashing might be an easy target for comedy these days, but Baumbach’s take on the topic is fresh and funny enough to work. He is after all a master of writing characters who accidentally reveal more about themselves than they mean to and given the verbal diarrhea narcissism of the average hipster, that’s a perfect match. Taking on this world through the perspective of Gen Xers aged passed their cynical prime works quite well too, offering two rounds of generational satire with one swing of the bat. Scenes like one in which Driver puts on “Eye Of The Tiger” to get ironically psyched up for a big meeting before Stiller responds, “I remember when this song was just bad” carry layers of laughs that consistently deliver. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Baumbach cast his movie to perfection either. Stiller and Watts gamely commit to their roles as if they aren’t playing comedy and in the process transform what could have easily been silly set pieces into nauseating (in a good way) tragicomic realism. Driver and Seyfried are stuck with characters too thin for much emotional investment, but both also play things straight enough to feel more like actual humans than satirical straw dogs.
For two thirds of the running time, While We’re Young feels like it might be Baumbach’s finest outing to date. The laughs arrive furiously, the targets are on point, the layers of melancholia keep the movie from ever feeling like an aimless romp, and he builds towards a nice (and Woody Allen approved) thesis about how every generation needlessly tears down and despises the previous generation simply for the sake of it. Despite all the movie stars and belly laughs, the filmmaker is able to construct a surprisingly believable little world that unfolds with the awkward stammers of life. Unfortunately somewhere in the middle of his race to the finish line, Baumbach pops his naturalistic bubble in a way that slightly harms the movie. The final third is filled with big cresting arcs and dramatic beats that reek of screenwriting contrivance. Granted, Baumbach at least seems self-aware enough to mock and contort his obvious dramatic beats as much as he conforms to them. Still, it’s unfortunate when all the good work that went into creating a harshly real world falls apart for some self-conscious screenwriting in-jokes. Thankfully, the final third of While We’re Young is far from a movie killer. It’s just a soft landing for a strong film. There was a chance that While We’re Young could have been the best Baumbach movie of them all, but it’s not. However, it is one of the best and possibly his funniest, so that’s a pretty damn worthy compromise. I’ll take it.