A lot of effort goes into masking the fact that While We’re Young doesn’t really have that much to say. The movie leans on Henrik Ibsen early on, quoting dialogue from The Master Builder before the credits. Here and there accomplished documentarians – Frederick Wiseman, Albert Maysles – are namechecked. And there is a confrontational moment in which a Lincoln Center speech on truth and art is intercut with two characters debating the very same thing. Surely something important is going on here?
Perhaps, but it felt a little scattered and thin to me. While We’re Young, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, centers on Cornelia and Josh (Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller), a couple in their 40s who strike up a friendship with Darby and Jamie (Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver), a couple some 15 years younger. The movie begins as a wryly funny and fairly well-observed comedy about a particular generation gap, but seems to run out of interest in that subject fairly quickly. And so other elements rise to the narrative forefront – Josh and Cornelia’s childlessness, Josh’s documentary career, Jamie’s fledgling attempts at art.
Unfortunately, While We’re Young seems equally exhausted by these topics. Continually perplexed by its latest area of focus, the movie throws up its hands and moves on to the next one. None of this bewilderment struck me as intentional. I don’t think you can claim While We’re Young is a dry comedy about the fact that we’ll never quite have it all figured out. Instead, this is bewilderment that’s pretending to have some answers. Speeches are given and confessions are made, yet the movie’s heart doesn’t seem to be in any of them. They feel obligatory.
Very little feels organic about the film, starting with Stiller and Watts as the central couple.
In fact, very little feels organic about the film, starting with Stiller and Watts as the central couple. Watts shows surprising comedic skills in the early scenes, but Stiller has given far better seriocomic performances (including one for Baumbach in Greenberg). Together, they never quite establish the natural rhythms of this pair before the plot mechanics begin to throw their relationship for a loop.
And there are a lot of plot mechanics, particularly as they relate to Jamie, Driver’s character. There’s something off about Driver’s performance from the first scene, which makes some sense after a reveal midway through, yet I’m not convinced the flatness is entirely intentional. In that confrontation sequence – it’s between Jamie and Josh – Driver has a slack-jawed anti-presence that makes Stiller’s big moment sound more like a “Get off my lawn!” rant.
That’s essentially what I was left with, despite Baumbach’s efforts to level the playing field. (“He’s not evil. He’s just young,” Cornelia says of Jamie at one point.) While We’re Young feels as if it comes from someone who really does want the kids off his lawn, but knows he’ll look silly screaming at them. So he mumbles it instead.