Matthew Turner delivers his verdict on Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy-drama While We’re Young, starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried
Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s ninth film is a brilliantly observed portrait of mid-life crises and generational envy that has echoes of Woody Allen’s best work, as well as expanding on similar themes from his own 2010 film Greenberg, which also starred Ben Stiller. By turns thought-provoking, cringe-inducing and laugh-out-loud funny, this is a thoroughly engaging comedy that may well mean different things to different people, depending on your age.
Set in Manhattan, the film stars Stiller and Naomi Watts as Josh and Cornelia, a married couple in their early forties, whose choice not to have children has set them apart from all their friends. Josh is feeling similarly frustrated in his career as a documentary-maker, having spent the last eight years on a project that his acclaimed documentarian father-in-law (Charles Grodin) describes as “a six-and-a-half-hour film that’s seven hours too long”.
When Josh is befriended by 25 year old hipster couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), he and Cornelia are re-energised and the four of them start hanging out together, ditching their now child-focussed best friends in order to do young and exciting things like exploring the city’s underground tunnels (Josh even buys a stylish hat).
Aspiring film-maker Jamie seems to idolise Josh and convinces him to collaborate on a documentary, while Cornelia bonds with Darby and joins her hip-hop aerobics class. However, Josh’s ego-boosted excitement eventually turns to suspicion, as he begins to both doubt the authenticity of Jamie’s project and question his motives in befriending him in the first place.
The performances are note-perfect throughout. Stiller is oddly more sympathetic and likeable when he’s playing neurotic, angry and frustrated than he is in his more conventional lead roles, like Walter Mitty. He also has genuine chemistry with Watts (their relationship feels believable and lived-in), while Driver puts his familiar-but-welcome brand of laid-back charm to excellent use, adding a layer of shiftiness that works well. There are also some astute casting decisions in the smaller roles, such as the choice of Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz to play Josh’s baby-obsessed best buddy.
Baumbach’s witty and perceptive script crackles with great lines and gets terrific comic mileage out of the contrast between the two generations, particularly when it comes to culture and technology: one inspired montage sees Josh and Cornelia settling in for an evening of Netflix and noodling around with their iPhones, while Jamie and Darby watch old VHS tapes and listen to vinyl LPs.
What gives the film an extra edge is the hint of autobiography – it’s tempting to see Baumbach’s simultaneous embrace and distrust of youth as the result of friends he may have met through his relationship with Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig, just as it’s easy to sense his anxiety about being pushed aside by a new wave of younger film-makers.
In short, this is a richly rewarding and superbly written drama that has something meaningful to say about the ageing process as well as delivering plenty of laughs. Highly recommended.
While We’re Young is in UK cinemas from Friday (3 Apr)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horovitz, Brady Corbet
Running time: 97 mins
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