The generation gap has been the premise from which myriad motion picture narratives have been constructed. Such films usually feature a curmudgeonly senior citizen (think Walter Matthau, Olympia Dukakis or, more recently, Bill Murray or Jane Fonda) who, somewhat begrudgingly at first, befriends some young tyke who happens into their orbit and a fabulous friendship ensues. With While We’re Young, writer/director Noah Baumbach shies away from these more typical representations of generational disparity in a story that focuses on a friendship that forms between a 40-something married couple and a bohemian couple in their early 20’s. Sitting somewhere between Baumbach’s previous two films – Greenberg and Frances Ha – in tone, While We’re Young juxtaposes some genuine laugh-out-loud moments against a somewhat darker mood that permeates much of the film, with Ben Stiller’s Josh Srebnick playing much like Roger Greenberg in that he too is disappointed about the way his life has turned out and is a very difficult person to like.
Josh is a documentary filmmaker whose life and career are stalled at the crossroads. Married to Naomi Watts’ Cornelia, Josh doesn’t even start to think about being unhappy until he meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young couple living a bohemian lifestyle. Both Josh and Cornelia are invigorated by their friendship with their younger counterparts, but it isn’t immediately obvious what Jamie and Derby might get out of such a friendship. Much of the humour derives from the efforts of Josh and Cornelia to emulate their new found pals, much to the chagrin of their existing friends. The mood darkens as Josh realises that Jamie – who is also a filmmaker – has achieved more in a month than he has in a decade. As Jamie ingratiates himself into every aspect of Josh’s life, his real motivations start to emerge and it becomes obvious that this isn’t going to end well. Josh is his own worst enemy though and his stubborn refusal to accept advice or assistance from Cornelia’s father Leslie (Charles Grodin) – an acclaimed documentarian – is seemingly borne from insecurity and envy rather than anything that Leslie has done.
Jamie is very much like Driver’s Girls character Adam in that he has little regard for how his own actions may impact upon those around him. The feelings of others are not his problem and Baumbach has constructed Jamie to symbolise the ‘me’ generation without a modicum of subtlety. There are some scenes that run too long, such as an extended sequence in which the foursome attend an ayahuasca ceremony, but generally things move along briskly enough as Josh and Cornelia attempt to re-invent themselves. The relationship between Cornelia and Darby is perhaps the most interesting but is largely ignored. Stiller has fashioned a career out of playing losers like this and he again masters the hangdog woe-is-me disposition that makes Josh and his ilk so infuriating. In this world, and perhaps in the real world as well, even if the mainstream media might like us to think otherwise, it is the malcontent 40-somethings who are addicted to Google, Twitter, Netflix and that latest fads, such as music classes for infants, while the hip young things are more interested in reading books and listening to music on vinyl; although Jamie using a typewriter instead of a computer is perhaps Baumbach trying a little too hard. As such, there is an irony is seeing Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz – the epitome of cool in the eyes of many – as perhaps the most irksome character of all.
Although this isn’t the best thing that Baumbach has produced – he set a pretty high standard last time out with the hilarious Frances Ha – it is amiable enough in its examination of how people change over time and the perils associated with trying to recapture past glories. There is a real dichotomy in the attitudes of the protagonists – careerism versus idealism – but this is about more than intergenerational discord. Funny, edgy and nostalgic at times, ultimately While We’re Young is about truth, authenticity and ethics.