Like the documentary Ben Stiller’s character Josh is making, Noah Baumbach’s newest film tries to be too many things at once with a muddled ending. It’s a one-time-only film, and after doing stellar work with 2013’s Frances Ha, it’s a disappointment.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a married couple living in New York City who are beginning to feel disconnected when their close friends have their first child. Both are in their mid-forties and have convinced themselves that they don’t want kids, that they’ve tried it and it didn’t work, and Cornelia especially doesn’t want to put themselves through it again. The two of them meet Darby (Amanda Seyfried) and Jamie (Adam Driver), who are twenty-something artist types that have adapted to the new hipster lifestyle. Darby makes her own ice cream, while Jamie is an amateur documentarian, who seeks advice from Josh, forming the friendship between the two couples.
There are two separate threads going on in this film that lead to storytelling dissonance. On the one hand, it’s a relationship drama between Josh and Cornelia who are at odds after growing too comfortable in their relationship and lifestyle. Particularly Josh, who has spent the last ten years working on the same documentary, trying to recapture the glory of his first. Then, there’s the screwball comedy, where people in their forties try to be cool and hip and hang with the selfish, flighty millennials.
You might not need to ask which part annoyed me.
It’s a shame the second thread was necessary because the quieter comedy beats and emotional sequences between Stiller and Watts were expertly done. Any time that Josh and Cornelia were interacting with one another or with their married friends was when the movie was at its best because it allowed for them to act their age, to add a layer of depth and to allow the actors, Stiller in particular, moments to stretch their legs. I would have been so much more satisfied walking out of the screening had the film been about 40-year-olds and their struggles with deciding what it means to be that age and if they need kids to be happy.
The problem lies with Jamie and Darby, who just aren’t likeable characters and bring out the worst in both Josh and Cornelia’s characterization and Baumbach’s storytelling. It’s a picture that’s saying that the Josh’s generation is about truth and earning your keep, while Jamie’s is all about sneaky ambition, and it seems tone deaf. Seyfried’s character is so underwritten it’s almost as if she wasn’t originally in the script to begin with. She and Watts could have had a fun dynamic between the two of them but she’s given so few scenes that it’s never allowed to play out. Frances Ha was so wonderful because it got female friendships, especially ones in their twenties where things are always in flux. It’s a shame that some of that magic couldn’t have translated onto While We’re Young.
I love films that are able to bridge genres in ways that feel effortless and earned, but While We’re Young manages neither. For a large portion of the film, it’s a broad comedy with sight gags, gross out moments (an entire sequence dedicated to vomiting) and over the top characterizations. Then, towards the end of the film, the tone switches and suddenly we’re supposed to care about these characters who were insufferable for an hour of the movie and hadn’t seemed to learn from any of their mistakes.
It’s an after-thought film and one I won’t be racing to see again. Stiller does some solid work, especially in his more stilted moments, while the rest of the cast is left with bits and pieces. The script by Baumbach is messy.There are interesting stories to tell about people nearing middle age, the emotional conflicts it may brew, and the regrets that might start to fester. There are stories that can be uplifting and also sad, and there are stories that can be told with a less condescending “oh, they’re just young” tone and ones that can end on a note that isn’t predictable. While We’re Young tries to be a lot of things, but ultimately the story left me frustrated. Like the characters, I left the film wishing about what could have been.
While We’re Young is out now in theaters.