In one memorable scene from writer-director Noah Baumbach’s 2005 comedy The Squid and the Whale, Bernard Berkman, a pompous novelist played by Jeff Daniels, calls for A Tale of Two Cities to be removed from his son’s high school syllabus, dismissing the book as “minor Dickens.” Berkman would probably categorize While We’re Young, an entertaining new feature starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, as “minor Baumbach.” But like the Dickens novel, While We’re Young is clearly the work of a great artist: It may not be Baumbach’s best movie, but it is still exponentially smarter than the countless throwaway comedies that fill American multiplexes every spring.
In the film’s opening scenes, Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts), a childless New York couple in their mid-40s, stand on the brink of a midlife crisis. Cornelia can no longer relate to their adult friends, who are preoccupied with the challenges of parenthood. Josh, a documentary filmmaker working on an absurdly ambitious long-term project, has a stalling career and a sensitive ego.
Enter Jamie (Adam Driver, Girls) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried, Les Miserables), 25-year-old hipsters who introduce Josh and Cornelia to the pleasures of hallucinogenic drugs and obnoxious headwear. Baumbach skillfully illustrates the ironies of this cross-generational friendship: The youngins own vinyl records and an ancient typewriter; Josh and Cornelia are constantly glued to their Apple devices.
The scenes in which Josh and Cornelia try to emulate the casual hipness of their new friends—dance classes, bike rides, drug-fuelled religious ceremonies—are consistently hilarious. And the welcome appearance of veteran actor Charles Grodin, playing a famous documentarian who also happens to be Cornelia’s dad, sets up the funniest scene in the movie: an argument between Josh and his skeptical father-in-law about the latest cut of Josh’s tedious-sounding film.
Baumbach has spent his career mapping the existential confusion that accompanies each stage of adult life. At its best, While We’re Young captures the anxieties of middle age with a witty tenderness reminiscent of Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach’s poignant exploration of the no-man’s land between college and the real world. Josh is kind of a jerk—but Baumbach, who has never written a character he doesn’t secretly love, turns him into a tragic and oddly endearing figure.
Unfortunately, the last act of While We’re Young becomes mired in the sort of heavy-handed plotting Baumbach generally avoids. Viewers familiar with the dramatic arc of All About Eve and the ethical peccadilloes in Broadcast News will quickly see where the film is heading.
Baumbach’s movies usually finish in a burst of poetic intensity: Jesse Eisenberg gazing at the titular diorama in The Squid and the Whale, Nicole Kidman racing after her son in Margot at the Wedding. By contrast, his latest film trundles to a disappointing finale, ending on a glib visual punch line that could have been ripped from an E-Trade commercial. This doesn’t make While We’re Young a bad movie, or even a not-very-good one. But Bernard Berkman would surely disapprove.