While We’re Young, by noah baumbach, is a midlife comedy: the story of a man’s midlife crisis, made all the more exquisitely horrible by making a fool of himself, not with a younger woman, but with a younger man. it’s not a sexual relationship, but something more painfully intimate: a matter of self-esteem and social status.
ben stiller once again plays the role of a middle-aged man whose mind has filled with disappointment like a kettle: pent-up resentment at the success of others shows on his face. he’s josh, a once-promising documentary filmmaker placidly reaching his 40s, teaching a film theory class but beginning to fear that his latest work, a solemn nonfiction film he’s spent eight years on so far, unsuccessful participation. -work time, it may never end. He has a very happy marriage to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), but resents his father-in-law (Charles Grodin), himself a dauntingly successful documentarian, a titan in a wise man’s league or Maysles. Cornelia and Josh’s friends are having babies, and they begin to feel restless and self-conscious about not having children.
In this exceptionally dangerous moment, their lives are invaded by Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a dazzlingly seductive couple in their twenties. Jamie, an aspiring director, professes that he’s a big fan of Josh’s work, though Darby, it seems, is a little dissatisfied in a way that mirrors Cornelia’s. The lives of these young people seem so much freer, sharper, more passionate and captivating to poor Josh. he is fascinated by their high and low culture nobrow casual consumption, so readily available digitally, and falls a bit in love with them. this is the yolo generation, through which he could miraculously live again. He persuades Cornelia to neglect her own circle of aging, gray-haired friends to hang out with Jamie and Darby, and guide Jamie in his film career. it even tragically affects wearing a hipster hat indoors as his new best friend. but from the point of view of someone older and more disillusioned, might there not be something strange and unsettling about these young people, indeed all young people?
As Jamie, Adam Driver is brilliant at conveying the fearless, tactless swagger of a young person with plenty of entitlement. (I haven’t seen anything like it since Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s 2011 Margaret movie.) Jamie never has the grace to thank Josh for anything she does for him, instead lavishing him with masculine flirtations and compliments, and indulging in the annoying mannerism of clapping his hands together, as if to say namaste. this is precisely what josh falls in love with: the idea of being on equal terms with a 2.0 me, a portrait of dorian gray taken from the attic: a protégé or mini-me that asserts itself. However, the terrible truth is that he is becoming Jamie’s maxi-me. Amanda Seyfried and Naomi Watts deftly create their own symbiosis: Aware that they’re being marginalized by what’s going on, they pity and distrust each other at the same time.
baumbach has produced another terrifyingly pleasing and wince-inducing study of insecurity. Josh is, of course, a lot like Woody Allen’s Cliff Stern, the crime and misdemeanor documentarian (1989) who, at the nadir of career failure, is forced to film a tribute to his hated brother-in-law, a man blockbuster in the same world of tuxedo dinners and speeches from which ben stiller’s josh feels left out. Her relationship with the cool Jamie is perhaps closest to that of Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve (1950), and another, more distant inspiration for their bromance could be concerned journalist Albert Brooks and young newsreader William Hurted. in james l brooks broadcast news (1987).
The terrible conclusion is that jamie might be more talented than josh, but that might be because he’s young. to be middle-aged in a room full of young people is to be a salieri in a room full of mozarts: they have unlimited enthusiasm and energy, and they are not hindered – or as it is – by the knowledge of where the paths of glory lead.
baumbach’s film encourages you to make an emotional investment in the authenticity of love and marriage, or at any rate josh and cornelia’s love and marriage, and to save your amused cynicism for the horror of careerist obsession . this means that the couple finally, and paradoxically, has to grow emotionally, and that may be too easy. none of which is a very sad and very funny movie while we’re young.