Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” begins as an entertaining drama/comedy, exploring the intersection between Gen X and Gen Y but eventually drifts into an annoying, rather obvious critique of Gen Y. Or, as we’re called these days: “Millennials.” In other words, half of the movie is a funny, nuanced look at a mid forties married couple in mid life crisis as they interact with a free spirited mid twenties couple, while the second is a humorless, heavy-handed chore that reveals nothing fresh or insightful. The film basically asserting that, while young people may appear to be cool and in the moment, we’re actually just selfish entitled brats who freeload. And we won’t get off our phones. Yeah? What else is new?
Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are that mid forties married couple in a mid life crisis. Both are documentary filmmakers; Josh has been working—well, more like stalling—on his latest project for eight years, while Cornelia can’t quite escape the shadow of her famous documentary filmmaker father. They’ve missed the boat on having kids and they’re afraid of becoming boring old people. Have they done enough with their lives? This all changes when they befriend hipsters, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried).
Young, wild and free—Jamie and Darby represent everything Josh and Cornelia aren’t and everything they want. Well, more what Josh wants. He’s insistent on hanging out with them, trying to recapture his youth and Cornelia eventually warms up to it. Jamie is an aspiring documentary filmmaker, while Darby makes her own ice cream. They listen to both vinyl and cassette tapes and have a typewriter, which are used solely for kitsch reasons. They also attend weekend retreats where they consume the hallucinogen Ayahausca.
They’re so cool. So carefree. They’re not worried about the future or finances or their mortality. They simply exist in the moment.
There’s an aura of smugness surrounding Jamie and Darby and I constantly rolled my eyes at their activities and antics. A reaction Baumbach probably wanted. At times it can feel like Jamie and Darby are exaggerated caricatures, but having lived in Seattle my whole life and currently attending college in Bellingham, Washington, I can comfortably say I’ve been acquainted with people like them. In this respect, Baumbach’s characterization is mostly spot on.
So OK, Baumbach is clearly mocking the hipster subculture and as the movie goes on we begin to see, in subtle gestures, the selfish and inconsiderate nature of Jamie and Darby become more apparent--such as Jamie never picking up the check when he and Josh go out to eat (moocher!). Yet, what makes the first half of “While We’re Young” good is that it not only mocks Jamie and Darby but Josh and Cornelia, Josh in particular. He’s just as self centered and ridiculous as Jamie but in different ways. He thinks very highly of himself and his work. The documentary he’s been working on is dull and pretentious. He’s stubborn and doesn’t like to collaborate. The reason he decides to hang out with Jamie and Darby in the first place is because they gush over an early documentary he made. In short, he’s insecure and shallow.
Cornelia isn’t as arrogant or self-centered as Josh but she’s just as insecure. And it’s their awareness of this insecurity that causes them to continue hanging out with Jamie and Darby. They too consume Ayahausca. Josh begins wearing similar clothes to Jamie, and Cornelia tries her hand at a hip-hop dance class. Watching them imitate young people is embarrassing but that’s precisely why it works. Josh and Cornelia’s pathetic need to adapt their life style to Jamie and Darby’s, and their refusal to accept that they’re getting old, provides the main source of comedy in the picture. In the end, this first section seems to suggest that while Jamie and Darby may be selfish inconsiderate freeloaders Josh and Corneila are no better. And that everyone grows up the same way. Jamie and Darby may be carefree now but chances are they’ll become just as square and insecure as Josh and Cornelia.
The second half is where the picture collapses on itself. It stops being a balanced look at the dynamics between Gen Y and Gen X and becomes a more narrowed comedic attack on Millennials. Not only are people like Jamie and Darby selfish and inconsiderate, they’re part of some elaborate scheme to screw over and take advantage of people like Josh and Cornelia. Their relaxed, hipster attitude is only a guise used to get what they want. When Josh catches on to this “conspiracy” he launches his own mini investigation to try and expose Jamie for the “fraud” he is. The movie turns into a hipster mystery and the climactic sequence somewhat resembles the final scene in a classic Film Noir where the detective elaborately explains the mystery. In this case, Josh is the detective and Jamie is the criminal. Josh goes from being a loser to “hero.” He even gets to proudly state that Jamie isn’t evil, “he’s just young.” I’m sure Baumbach felt really good about that line. The problem is, none of this funny and it feels extremely heavy handed.
Baumbach also throws in a scene where Josh complains about Twitter and how everything’s “recorded” nowadays (there always has to be a Twitter jab). And when Josh goes in to meet a young potential investor to complete the rest of his movie, the guy’s an idiot who keeps getting distracted by his phone and completely ignores him. These jabs are painfully obvious and have been seen numerous times before. The entire second half of the movie is full of regurgitated insights and complaints about youth culture. To hammer its obvious point home even further, the movie ends with the image of a toddler texting and emailing on a cell phone. Ha! Those crazy kids, you can’t stop ‘em.
I’m not saying the complaints and criticisms aimed at youth in the movie are necessarily wrong. It’s just that the movie becomes so narrow-minded while at the same time revealing no fresh insights or observations. And because Baumbach thinks he’s revealing new and clever insights, the attempts at humor become unbearably smug and oppressive. At a certain point, I stopped caring about what was happening.