One thing is for sure: Critics love them some Noah Baumbach. Especially, it seems, since The Squid and The Whale, his semi-auto-biographical tale of kids who react badly to their parents’ divorce. What is less certain, however, is whether Generation X will age more gracefully than the Boomers did.
I don’t know that this genre started in 1980 with the Bruce Dern/Ann-Margaret starrer Middle Age Crazy (co-written by Jerry Lee Lewis!). Certainly earlier films showed the ravages of middle age, including my beloved Heaven Can Wait, when Gene Tierney tells the roguish Don Ameche that she no longer worries about his dalliances, since he’s spread out into middle age. And it seems like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and even John Wayne were always suffering some sort of indignity due to age.
But these were not movies about middle age. They were about life, and aging as part of that. It wasn’t an “oh, my God, we’ve lost our youth” thing. But it turns out that Don Ameche’s Henry Van Cleve was charming precisely because he was such an oddity: A silly, unserious person who could get away with it due to fortunate circumstances and considerable charm.
We’re all Henry Van Cleve now (sans the charm). We’re not serious. We don’t settle down. A shocking number of us don’t even work. And this is why you can’t remake Heaven Can Wait, but you can make movies like Middle Age Crazy, where old age is seen as a personal insult.
And it’s a peculiarity of the modern coming-of-middle-age film that many of the tropes that used to be reserved for movies about young people are revisited. Which brings us to While We’re Young.
In this movie, Ben Stiller (Josh) and Naomi Watts (Cornelia) are a 44 and 43-years-old (respectively) childless couple living in Manhattan. He makes documentaries—he’s been working on one for ten years—while she produces documentaries for her father (played by Charles Grodin). Their friends have just had a baby, and this causes some distance between the pair, as babies are fairly time-consuming.
What a thing to find out in your 40s, right?
They end up falling in without a young married couple, Jamie (played by Adam Driver of Tracks, Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis, This Is Where I Leave You—I’m putting all these credits in for Driver because I did not “know” him despite his distinctive looks) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). He’s a cocky Millennial hipster who makes silly little semi-improvised “documentaries”, and she’s a sweet maker of artisanal ice cream.
And so begins the fish-out-of-water/old-person-out-of-touch experiences as Josh and Cornelia try to navigate the youthful world of hip-hop, fedoras and street foods. Which they do pretty well, actually. Some of Baumbach’s cleverest stuff is in the contrast between the old and young: Where our Gen Xers embrace iTunes, Netflix and all the conveniences of the digital age, Gen Y has LPs, VHS tapes, and ironic consumption of ‘70s, ’80s and even early ’90s culture. (Their experiments with trying to co-opt the casual vulgarity of the younger couple are not so successful. The language is unusually salty for a film of this genre.)
As entranced as they are by the vitality of the young couple, the Josh and Cornelia reveal their foolishness by never looking past the surface. Instead of seeing what Darby and Jamie really are, they see themselves 20 years ago. They don’t see Darby’s longing to be treated better by Jamie; that the bad language is not all fun-and-games, for example. They live with Tipper (yes, Tipper! and doubtless named after that Tipper), who acts as Jamie’s sound girl, but whose relationship with Jamie seems a little murky, but Josh and Cornelia are “cool” about it.
The willful blindness leaves them open for Jamie’s predations.
Which, frankly, aren’t that bad. A lot of times, these movies get really, really gross. Jamie is a hipster douchebag, manipulative and hypocritical, and the movie rather touchingly (and convincingly) posits that his worst crime is convincing Josh that he’s genuine.
The prime problem here—and one suspects a certain degree of autobiography—is a kind of creative block that Josh has, one borne of integrity and a commitment to quality, but also in no small part due to pride and stubbornness. Cornelia suffers from this directly—in her case, finding out too late, like so many Gen Xers, that the biological clock is real and remorseless—as does their marriage as a whole.
Baumbach refuses to condemn anyone, and dodges or handles artfully the most common tropes of this genre, but there’s no getting around the fact that neither Josh nor Jamie, our main characters, are particularly likable. Josh grows on us and becomes more sympathetic by the end and, after a fashion, the movie petitions for sympathy for Jamie as well. But by that point, you’re an hour-and-a-half into a 97 minute movie.
It’s not bad. It’s not great. I liked it better than Squid or Baumbach’s recent Frances Ha. The Boy tended to occur. Maybe extra points for managing a typically icky subject fairly well, though.
Bonus appearance by renowned sex offender Peter Yarrow as the weird and unpleasant guy who Josh interviews for endless hours to make his documentary.