Film Review: While We’re Young

by Carrie Kahn on April 3, 2015

It’s Gen X versus the hipsters in Baumbach’s uneven new film

Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and Josh (Ben Stiller) have a late night discussion.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach, who is 45, and whose girlfriend and frequent muse Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) is 31, obviously knows a thing or two about Gen X/millennial conflict, and it’s hard not to wonder how much his real life experiences shaped While We’re Young, his new picture exploring the generational divide. While intellectually clever and undeniably funny at times, Baumbach’s film is not without its problems.

It is difficult to discuss this film in depth without giving away too much of the plot, which figures heavily into Baumbach’s thematic examination. Suffice to say that a mid-40s New York couple, documentary filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) and his producer wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), befriend a mid-20s couple, up-and-coming documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver) and his ice-cream making wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried). That friendship becomes a catalyst for professional and personal strife and growth for all involved.

The picture is a broad send up of millennial and Gen X stereotypes. In a somewhat contrived montage sequence, we see Darby writing in a journal, Jamie typing on a manual typewriter, and the couple watching old VHS tapes, playing board games, and feeding the chickens in their apartment (yes, you read that right). Meanwhile, oldsters Cornelia and Josh, when they aren’t nursing arthritis or buying glasses for their nearsightedness, are busy on their iPads, iPods, and laptops. Yes, the young have co-opted the Gen X youth in the name of retro hipness, and it’s the un-hip middle aged who are embracing the new technology the younger generation is scorning.

Not to say that the film doesn’t have some very funny and true moments; it most certainly does. Driver, in particular, brings a rich comic edge to Jamie, and turns what otherwise might have been a superficial, clichéd character into one that is unique and complex. Jamie’s insistence on calling Josh by a series of grating nicknames (Joshie, for one) and speaking as if he were in a ‘30s gangster movie (using slang like “geez Louise” and ending sentences with “see?”) are subtle yet inspired tics that provide deep laughs.

In the midst of all this culture clash fun, we also get a Woody Allen-esque exploration of everything from art, film, the creative process, truth and authenticity to the pros and cons of having kids, the folly of youth, and the vagaries of age. This discussion proves richer and more compelling than the easy character send-ups. Charles Grodin, as Cornelia’s respected film director father, brings a refreshing air of gravitas and wisdom to a picture that could use more of it.

Jamie (Adam Driver) asks his new friend Cornelia (Naomi Watts) for a favor.

The main problem with the picture, then, is that it is a little too full of cheap shots. At this point, poking fun at 20-something Brooklynites by portraying them as narcissistic hipsters feels played out. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Baumbach is taking sides, and he comes out squarely in the corner of the Xers, in a cranky, ranting, those-damn-kids kind of way (“They’re entitled little brats,” Josh says of millennials to his friend Fletcher (an excellent Adam Horovitz) ).

Baumbach paints Xers as morally superior and millennials as inherently flawed. In contrast, even the recent hackneyed, widely derided big budget picture The Internship, which also played the generation gap for laughs, was actually more forgiving and kind to both the younger and older generations. That film ultimately respected the value of each, insisting that each have something to offer, both to each other, and to the world. In Baumbach’s story, however, Xers are filled with integrity and conviction, while millennials are manipulative and self-serving, a characterization that is grossly unfair, to say the least.

Perhaps I’m getting soft in my advancing age, but sometimes so much smugness just feels exhausting. The truth is that nobody ever really grows up; one of the film’s best scenes features Josh and Cornelia having a candid conversation in which they confess that they’ve always felt like children imitating adults. That’s a universal feeling to be sure, and Baumbach, when he isn’t falling back on tired tropes, at times here does tap into some universal truths with some sharp, poignant writing.

So maybe we can stop all the self-satisfied snickering, and try to remember that we are all just trying to muddle through; some of us have just been doing it longer than others. Toward the end of the picture, there’s a scene in which one character says of another that that character isn’t evil, just young. Indeed. Weren’t we all, once.


While We’re Young opens today at the Century San Francisco Centre and Sundance Kabuki theaters in San Francisco.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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