I like Noah Baumbach’s style, and if you haven’t taken a bite out of his resume–you should. He’s been Oscar-nominated (his screenplay for 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale”), and he possesses a keen ear for how New Yorkers talk and think, plus a remarkable instinct for casting characters. I eagerly await next month’s “Mistress America” from Noah, co-written by and starring his current muse, the wonderful Greta Gerwig (of 2013’s “Frances Ha”). This is Ben Stiller’s 2nd go round with Baumbach (after 2010’s “Greenberg”, co-starring Ms. Gerwig), and Ben seems quite comfortable as he’s razor-sharp here. He hits a home run as fortysomething Josh, a creatively stuck documentary filmmaker. And I adore Naomi Watts as wife, Cornelia. Always, and forever, Betty/Diane. Btw, I’ll forgive the pretentious opening scroll of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder”, because “While We’re Young” is such a solid showcase for both Watts and Stiller.
Middle-aged Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts), are relatively well-to-do and comfortable Manhattanites, but they are restless and unfulfilled, as well. When their last set of childless friends finally have a baby, their lives seem to hit crisis mode. Josh and Cornelia have kind of wanted children, but after suffering two miscarriages–Cornelia now thinks it’s too late. Meanwhile, Josh has been endlessly tinkering with his latest film project for years, an hours long sociology-based documentary–and it looks like he’ll never complete it. Enter Jamie (a hipster charming, Adam Driver) and girlfriend, Darby (the beguiling Amanda Seyfried)…in their twenties, spontaneous, inquisitive, and full-of-life. Plus, as a fledgling filmmaker himself, Jamie is a HUGE fan of Josh’s work. So, the quartet start “hanging out” together. Bike rides through the NYC streets, hip-hop dance classes, and watching classic movies on VHS tapes are just a few of their adventures. And although Josh and Cornelia resurrect a youthfulness they haven’t felt in years, their contemporary friends are befuddled as to what to make of the couple, as they behave two decades younger than they actually are. And then Josh’s new-found vigor is threatened, when Jamie turns out not to be as altruistic as he originally appeared.
The hallucinogen-soaked, spiritual gathering didn’t hit all the right notes for me (for one thing, it seemed forced), but most of the writing is spot on. Mr. Stiller is in his wheelhouse as the grasping, uncomfortable Josh, and his beats are consistent throughout. Watts is his perfect, demure counterpart, and Driver nails an approximation of what the younger, idealistic Josh may have once been like. Also, there’s a wry turn from the legendary Charles Grodin, as Cornelia’s established and lauded, documentary director, father. This is the octogenarian’s richest role in years, and he handles it effortlessly. Being that Baumbach and now ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, became parents in their 40’s, should you label this film project semi-autobiographical? Is a bluebird, blue? And Noah proves wise enough to dull some of his usual knife blades during the denouement. A cop-out? Nah. It’s something all us parents have to learn to do. It’s a compromise of our ideals, NOT a defection. And I’m pleased to witness, via “While We’re Young”, that Mr. Baumbach understands the distinction. Nice work.