REVIEW: “While We’re Young”

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Noah Baumbach has made a career out of making movies about unlikable or generally unhappy characters. Many of his walking human complexities exist in various stages of lethargy, denial, or dissatisfaction. But at the same time the characters he creates drip with humanity and they are fascinating to watch. Yet with all of that being said, I don’t always fully go for his movies.

“While We’re Young” is another of Baumbach’s mixed bags. It is a sincere and genuinely human comedy that connects due to its observational honesty and its willingness to address real emotional struggles. But like a few other Baumbach projects, it doesn’t fully see its promise through and the final act of the film wanders away from what makes the story initially so compelling.

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Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia Schrebnick, a middle-aged couple living in New York City. Their past difficulties in having a baby are highlighted with the birth of their best friends’ daughter. Josh and Cornelia attempt to brush aside their feelings of disappointment and unfulfillment by focusing on the freedoms they have as a family of two. But even that is effected by the plain ol’ fact that they are just getting old.

Josh is a movie documentarian who has been stuck in the rut of an eight year film project that shows no signs of nearing completion. After teaching a continuing education class at a local college he is approached by young twenty something couple Jamie and Darby Massey (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). The Massey’s invite Josh and Cornelia to dinner where we learn Jamie is an aspiring documentarian and a huge fan of Josh’s first film.

Josh and Cornelia grow infatuated with their new young hipster friends and their exaggerated retro styles. They feel young and energetic whenever they are around Jamie and Darby and they begin feeling a disconnect with their old friends. But is this simply a refuge from their insecurities about getting older, or is the old adage correct – you’re only as old as you feel?

For most of the film Baumbach explores that question through a number of smart and witty conversations and situations. We see the Schrebnick’s, particularly Josh, open up and embrace new things. He puts aside some of his closed-minded, exclusionist perspectives and sees creativity and life in general through a new lens. But at the same time Baumbach is shrewdly pointing a finger, not at Josh but at the Masseys; asking compelling questions about the younger generation.

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Baumbach’s film works on so many levels but it also has its flaws. Stiller and Watts each convincingly play their individual parts. Yet there are moments where I couldn’t quite buy into them as a couple. There are also a few moments where the normal sharp wit gives way to the juvenile. For example, an Ayahuasca scene leads to a running vomit gag that never seems to end. I mean who doesn’t laugh at vomit, right? And the biggest problem is in the last act when the story loses its focus a bit and ventures off in a direction that simply wasn’t that interesting.

Baumbach is a unique filmmaker who tells unique stories. His tales rarely venture outside of his confined view of life, love, and relationships but that’s what provides his films with their own flavor. “While We’re Young” gives its audience things to ponder and to chew on while also being deftly funny and unflinchingly human. It just can’t quite see its strengths through till the end. It’s still a good film. Not “Frances Ha” good but hey…

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

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10 thoughts on “REVIEW: “While We’re Young”

  1. Nice review, Keith. I don’t think I’ve seen any of his films, although I remember you raving about “Frances Ha” (I need to rent that, thanks for reminding me). Oh, does that hurt–your opening sentence thinking Stiller and Watts as “a middle-aged couple”. I have lots of respect for both actors. I probably will check this out. I notice Han and Leia’s son sitting in the driver’s seat of your posted picture. I liked him in Star Wars, so that’s another reason to rent “While We’re Young”.

    • I do like Baumbach even if I don’t always go 100% in with his movies. He is so shrewd in the way he handles some of the purest human feelings. And he always laces them with some pretty good comedy. And that is indeed Adam Driver. He is really good here.

  2. Yeah, I’d go along with this Keith; I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of it, laughing at the right bits and enjoying the cast, who send up hipsterdom and that desperation to regain youth quite well between them. But I just cannot fathom why it descended into this largely joyless story about authenticity in documentary filmmaking at the end…it just seems like such an odd choice, and the whole awards dinner scene just seems completely out of place and tonally different.

  3. Right on the money Keith, this is the second (?) Baumbach film I’ve seen . . . this and Frances Ha, I believe are the only two, and I’m 50-50 on him. Loved the latter, but didn’t much care for this. Maybe at the time I wasn’t aware this guy loves making films involving hip, “cool,” trendy people, people who are just so incredibly indecisive and are largely frustrating, but given this and what I’ve heard about Mistress America, I just think the guy likes mopey stories. He’s not really for me I don’t think. That said, I still am curious about the Squid and the Whale. Perhaps I shouldn’t be such a contrarian though, as I have heard that movie epitomizes Baumbach’s ability to create really grating characters đŸ˜‰

    • Oh I can see where Baumbach’s infatuation with frustrating and often annoying people can be a bit of a turn off. I tend to enjoy the way her humors us with their personalities and their self-centered introspection. Again, I can completely see where that wouldn’t be all that fun for others ESPECIALLY if the humor doesn’t work. That in the linchpin IMO.

      • That’s a good point, I actually do enjoy and appreciate the fact Baumbach takes that step back and suggests we should, in some sense, be put off or bemused by their own stumbling and shortcomings. He’s perhaps not the genuine Hipster article himself. I can access this kind of humor, but only to a point. After so long it does get old for me. That said, this was the best I had seen Ben Stiller since The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

      • I agree. Stiller isn’t exactly my favorite guy but he was good here. And I really liked him in “Walter Mitty”. I know many dismissed it, but it wasn’t a bad movie.

  4. Good stuff, man. I have to say, I’m a big fan of Baumbach’s films. This isn’t his sharpest but I still had a lot of fun with this one. It’s hard to disagree with your rating but I’d maybe nudge it up another 1/2 star.

    • I generally like his movies too. I think the big sticking point with this one was the ending. I felt it completely went again the other 3/4’s of the film. Otherwise I felt he was hitting several of his usual notes that I normally respond to.

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