Tuesday 20 March 2018

Review: While We're Young

Noah Baumbach's New York comedy is a delight

Paul Whitington

Any number of film-makers and writers, from Wes Anderson to Lena Dunham, could claim to be the spiritual descendants of Woody Allen, but Noah Baumbach makes perhaps a better case than most. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Baumbach makes films about neurotic and self-absorbed New Yorkers who are all at sea once they leave Manhattan.


His movies blend humour and serious drama much in the manner of mid-period Allen, and often use music as a telling counterpoint. And while some of his earlier films, like The Squid and the Whale, weren't perhaps as funny as they might have been, his comic touch has definitely improved over time.

I loved his last film, the angsty comedy Frances Ha, and While We're Young is his wittiest and most focussed work to date. It's also pretty topical, as it examines the concept of generation gaps and people's increasing reluctance to entertain the possibility that they might be growing old.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a pair of reasonably contented 40-something New Yorkers who live in a nice apartment and potter around on the fringes of the city's arts scene. He's a film-maker, and like Woody Allen's character in Crimes and Misdemeanors, has toiled fitfully for years on a worthy documentary that somehow refuses to finish itself.

When their best friends Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz from the Beastie Boys) have a baby, Josh and Cornelia are overcome by an unspoken wistfulness for a seminal life experience which has eluded them, and quickly grow tired of listening to gushing accounts of the infant's every blurt and gurgle.

But Josh is reinvigorated when he meets a hip young couple in Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), whose spontaneity and zest for life are infectious.

Jamie and Darby are in their 20s, and inhabit an effortlessly retro hipster world that seems a million miles from the uptight rigidities of Josh and Cornelia's lives. Darby has wild hair and makes her own ice cream: Jamie is an aspiring film-maker who wears brimmed hats and cycles dreamily around Manhattan as if he owns the place.

They seem intent on being rather than doing, and when Josh picks up his smart phone to Google something that's come up in conversation, Jamie stops him and says "let's just not know".

Josh and Cornelia are smitten, and begin wearing silly hats themselves, going to hip-hop exercise classes and taking drugs to achieve higher states of consciousness. It's all nonsense of course: Jamie is not quite as unfocussed as he seems, and the older couple's rage against the dimming of the light is touching, but ridiculous.

In While We're Young, Mr. Baumbach is in the mood to teach lessons. Ben Stiller's character, Josh, realises that he's been too cautious, too crablike in his existence. He's in awe of Cornelia's father (wonderfully played with a weary sigh by Charles Grodin), a celebrated social realist documentary-maker, and is as crushed by his eminence as he is by the terrifying enthusiasm of Jamie and the generation to come.

He's stuck in the middle, and though he knows deep down that Jamie is a ridiculous posturer, he envies him his energy, his generosity of spirit, and his staggering self-confidence. When Jamie plays the 80s ballad Eye of the Tiger with apparent enthusiasm, Josh mutters "I remember when this song was just supposed to be bad", but he admires the younger man's cultural voraciousness, even if it is misguided.

Stiller is excellent in a role that's analogous to the one he played in Baumbach's 2010 film Greenberg, and Naomi Watts brings soul and humour to her portrayal of his sad-eyed mate. Their attempts to defy time are hilarious, as is their slowness to accept that fact that, for them, being young is no longer an option.

While We're Young

(15A, 97mins)

5 Stars

Irish Independent

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