Sunday, August 23, 2015

"While We're Young" on Getting Old

I fully expected a new Noah Baumbach film starring Ben Stiller to be another round of awkwardness, as the last time the pair collaborated they made the aging Gen-X manchild navel-gazer "Greenberg," which I found glum and uncomfortable to watch.  "While We're Young," however, takes on middle age woes from a completely different angle, and surprised me in the best ways possible.  And despite some early misgivings, it's become one of my favorite films of the year.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia Schrebnick, a pair of forty-something New Yorkers who work in documentary filmmaking and have become dissatisfied with their lives and each other.  Josh, once a promising young director, has been trying to finish an ambitious project for years, and also teaches at a local college.  In one of his classes he meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a twenty-something couple who the Schrebnicks befriend and become fascinated with.  Josh becomes caught up in trying to be a mentor figure to Jamie, while simultaneously struggling with his own insecurities about his work and his relationships with Cornelia and her father Leslie (Charles Grodin), a famous filmmaker.

I like Ben Stiller as Josh Schrebnick, and I haven't liked Ben Stiller in much of anything in years.  Here, I found him completely relatable, sympathetic, and easy to root for, even though Josh is in many ways the kind of self-centered New York intellectual that commonly populate Noah Baumbach films, and have left me cold in the past.  While Roger Greenberg stubbornly resisted change, Josh is very aware of his own inadequacies, and eager to embrace what he views as a possible way out of his rut - connecting to the new generation.  It's a lot of fun watching him try to throw himself into Millennial culture, only to realize that he's simply not equipped for it.  You can't get more obvious about your themes than your main character literally trying on a new hat - but it's all in how he wears the hat.  And in "While We're Young," the generational divide was never more gently, poignantly mined for so many laughs.   

The whole ensemble is great.  Every character feels so lived-in, every performance so unfussy and unconstrained.  Naomi Watts has less screen time than I was hoping for, but she gets some great scenes trying to navigate Mommy cults and hip-hop classes, before getting to the tender stuff with Stiller.  Grodin and Seyfried are decidedly minor players, but make the most of their appearances.  And then there's Adam Driver, who practically runs away with the whole movie.  This is the most substantial role I've seen him in to date, and he's a perfect embodiment of all the things that everyone seems to love and hate about Millennials.  They're charismatic, enlightened, DIYers who aren't scared of trying new things!  They have no respect for personal boundaries and promote lax morals!  They're insufferably pretentious!  Or model egalitarians!  Or both!

As a viewer right smack between both of the couples in age, I'm in a good position to sympathize with both positions.  "While We're Young" definitely keeps the POV with Stiller and Watts' characters, marveling at the weird and wacky activities the younger pair enjoy, while also bemoaning the encroaching afflictions of middle-age.  Most of Baumbach's films are semi-autobiographical, and here he's clearly feeling his age.  However, he does it in a way that's very universal and inclusive.  It never feels like he's making generalizations or writing anyone off.  Topics of discussion range from fatherhood to career woes to changing social mores, and in the second half of the film, right when I was least expecting it, the story took a turn and we wound up somewhere completely different.  The plot sort of sneaks up on you in this movie, which doesn't happen often anymore. 

I found this to be a very easy watch - briskly paced and sharply written.  The humor was a little broader than usual, including a sequence at an absurd ayahuasca ceremony that is flat-out the funniest thing I've seen this year.  For Baumbach newbies, especially those of a certain age, I think I'm going to recommend starting with this one.  His early career sharpness has mellowed into something warmer and more empathetic, which I like very much.  And "While We're Young" is the closest thing to a crowd-pleaser he's ever made.   

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