Filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) lives in New York with his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and works as a lecturer in order to fund his documentary, that's been eight years in the making. The middle-aged couple's life changes when they meet younger hipster couple Jamy (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), and they feel reenergised by this new world of possibilities and creativity opening to them.
TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL: The couple at the centre of While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach’s tender, surprisingly broad new comedy, were 25 just the other day. It feels that way, anyway, for Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cordelia (Naomi Watts), a New York City couple suffering a kind of breached birth into middle age. At most they are 35, just settling into promising careers, Josh as a documentary filmmaker, Cordelia as a producer for her famous documentarian father (Charles Grodin). In fact, they are in their mid-40s, and Josh, in particular, is having a hard time accounting for the last eight years, time he has spent fretting over a documentary that has proven as hard to finish as it is to explain to potential backers.
Age panic—specifically the fear of not living up to one’s early potential—is a growing theme in Baumbach’s work. Greenberg and Frances Ha center on characters unable to commit to their own lives. Both of those characters appear stuck around age 25, which is the age of Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), the terminal hipsters who show up to audit Josh’s documentary class and quickly insinuate themselves into his life. Josh and Cordelia are smitten with everything about Jamie and Darby, who reject Facebook and favour all things analogue and artisanal, and who embrace institutions like marriage, which Josh and Cordelia’s generation played down. That their apartment features a pantsless roommate and a caged rooster only adds to the young couple’s charm.
"Members of a certain generation might cower to hear a Beastie Boy describe himself as an old man"
“It’s like their apartment is full of stuff we threw out,” Cordelia says, referring to the younger couple’s vinyl collection and old board games. Brooklyn-oriented social satire has already worn quite thin, and as the romance between the elder and younger couple blossoms, While We’re Young is in danger of thinning out as well. But the Baumbach touch, as evidenced in the above-quoted line, goes a long way to smoothing out the film’s more canned moments, such as Cordelia’s flailing participation in a hip-hop class and the couple’s joining in on a shaman-led Ayahuasca ceremony in which communal puking is the central attraction. Stiller and Watts, both excellent, help ground some of the broader set pieces, and as a perverse kind of treat, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz is cast as one half of a couple so smug about their new baby that Josh and Cordelia can’t bear their company. (Members of a certain generation might cower to hear a Beastie Boy describe himself as an old man.)
Woven into the schtick-ier stuff is an apt depiction of the uncomfortable clarity that time can shed upon a life. Because Josh and Cordelia’s decision not to have children was not entirely their own, they continue to treat as an open option what time and nature has closed to them. After an early success, Josh seemed to freeze up as a filmmaker, holding himself to a standard of integrity that ensures complete creative (not to mention financial) stasis. The ambling Jamie, meanwhile, is a ball of subaltern ambition topped with a porkpie hat. “People our age are too success-oriented,” Josh complains early on—not like Jamie, who lives for the moment, and micro-batch beer. By the film’s climax, Josh will have reversed this opinion (or projection) completely, in a twist that crosses an acute depiction of Generation X defeatism with an earnest “you kids today” lecture on Millennial amorality that verges on embarrassing.
Jamie’s side of that clash—over truth and authenticity in documentary—seemed to echo in Michael Moore’s TIFF keynote, delivered early this week. "If you can't accept that you're an entertainer… get out of the business," Moore told his fellow documentarians. "People don't want medicine, they want popcorn. Entertainment is the big dirty word of documentary. 'Oh no! I've entertained someone. I've cheapened my movie!'" Moore is a baby boomer, part of the generation whose foibles, fear of aging, and disappointments were first depicted onscreen in The Graduate, and went on to define several decades worth of Woody Allen films. A generation that cast aside its lofty values as youth slipped away.
Watching While We’re Young, I wondered if baby boomers might see much difference between this film and those that chronicled their generation’s middle age. I wondered if, now in their 60s and beyond, the boomers are still waiting, as Josh and Cordelia seem to be, for their grown-up card to arrive in the mail. I shuddered at the thought. Then I had some popcorn, and a couple more laughs.