Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried
Following in the footsteps of other prolific American indie directors of his generation like Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and Richard Linklater, Noah Baumbach has proven time and time again to be one of the most intriguing and unique filmmakers in the Independent scene. Following successes with the uncompromising The Squid and the Whale (2005), the shamelessly quirky Greenberg (2010) and the uplifting Frances Ha (2012), his latest film, While We’re Young keeps his signature youthful wit and explores the complex age gap between generations X and Y.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a 40-something childless couple who are struggling to embrace their age. Their best friends have just had a baby and they already feel themselves growing apart from each other. Josh is a film professor and wannabe-documentary filmmaker who has spent the last 10 years unsuccessfully making a passion project. Cornelia is a producer for her father’s film company, himself being a famous documentary filmmaker (played by Charles Grodin).
In one of Josh’s University lectures, they meet 20-something married couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who, with their free-spirited lease on life, inspire them to live their lives more youthfully. They quickly become new BFFs, taking the older couple to hip-hop classes, street parties and a Sharman ceremony. Inspired by his new enthusiasm for life, Josh decides to collaborate with Jamie on a new film project, before things start to unravel and tensions between the generations inevitably arise.
While We’re Young attempts to say a lot about the generational gap between X and Y, and it often does this by unfairly stereotyping. Jamie and Darby are excruciatingly hip, they’re virtually the dictionary definition of twenty-something hipsters, worshiping vintage items like VHS tapes and records. As James Murphy sings on LCD Soundsystem’s song Losing My Edge, it’s a “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered 80s”, the mindset that everything that was once considered bad (B-grade schlock horror films, corny one-hit-wonders, daggy clothes) is now cool; but only ironically of course.
Baumbach allows the audience to look upon Josh and Cornelia in a sympathetic light, where we almost feel a second-hand embarrassment for them trying to retain their youth. In reality, they don’t fit with the twenty-something crowd, which is a given, but they also don’t fit with the older forty-something crowd either. This is no better demonstrated than in a scene where Cornelia goes to a “mummy-and-me” music class with her friend. It’s a one of the film’s most hilarious moments, but it is also underlined with a sense of regret and sadness, as the infertile Cornelia must face the fact that she can never have children. It’s the film’s way of exploring societal expectations placed upon people and what happens when people go against those expectations; and for Cornelia, as a woman of a certain age not to have children is often seen as selfish in society’s eyes.
The film is greatly interested in exploring the trivial fears and tensions of the educated upper-middle class, which means the problems faced by Josh and Cornelia, especially towards the film’s end, aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. Sure, the strive to succeed in one’s dream career and their desire to start a family are both very important and topical issues, yet Baumbach has chosen a main plot line and point of conflict that is essentially about the ethics of documentary filmmaking – not the most thrilling of subjects. Ultimately, at the film’s conclusion, it hasn’t said very much about the journey that our characters have taken in the film. But perhaps that’s the whole point.
Essentially, While We’re Young had the potential to be an entertainingly topical and timely exploration into the generational gap, but the film’s big mistake is that it looks at the generations with a condescending view. Are all members of Gen X really that unfulfilled with their lives and judgemental of younger people? And is all of Gen Y really that precociously obnoxious and pretentiously arrogant? Of course not, but by showing the absolute worse of these Generations – even the Baby Boomers get their grumpy antihero in the form of Cornelia’s dad – the film teeters on the edge of being self-aware satire and too preachy, falling in the latter category too many times, overall becoming too much of a cliché to be taken seriously.