The search for eternal youth can distract anyone from the realities of life.
While many have tried, no one has figured out how to make time stand still. Yes, the years pass and, despite our efforts, we get older.
Noah Baumbach’s insightful comedy While We’re Young explores the folly of trying to fight the realities of age. We meet Josh and Cornelia, a successful couple in New York City, who wake up one day to realize that, while they weren’t looking, they reached middle age. While he works as a documentary film maker and she busily manages their social routine, the clock keeps ticking. They are older than they ever intended to be.
Like many who face middle age, Josh and Cornelia wonder what may be missing. Rather than face their fears, though, they try to recapture their lost years when they meet a young “hipster” couple. While the generational differences may be obvious, Josh and Cornelia refuse to admit they no longer have what it takes to replay the youth they may never have experienced. Perhaps, while they were young, they could be so carefree. But time can turn the casual into the serious.
Through a series of funny sequences — perfectly observed through Baumbach’s sharp eye — Josh and Cornelia try every way to keep up with their young friends. The laughs flow as the older pair attempts to like music they don’t understand, participate in activities they can’t handle, and articulate beliefs that sound foreign. Rather than admit they can’t keep up, Josh and Cornelia try to reinvent themselves with younger models clearly in mind. But there’s a limit to the pictures that denial can paint.
Their adventures give Baumbach the opportunity to reveal how silly people can be when trying to deny who they are. Ben Stiller — in a sharp performance reminiscent of his work in the director’s Greenberg — brings appealing desparation to a man who so wants to be accepted by his young friends that he would willingly walk away from his aspirations. Rather than only play the comic moments, Stiller digs beneath the surface to detail the fear anyone could face when realizing that middle age means more years may be in the past than in the future. Without feeling sorry for the character, Stiller layers the reactions to time with an ego-free humility. He is matched by Naomi Watts’ graceful work as a woman who wants to understand her husband’s traumas while wondering the reasons behind his actions. And Charles Grodin — absent from the screen for too long — is delicious as Watts’ father who has his own ideas about how to mark the passage of time. The master comedian soaks the humor out of each moment. It’s great to see him on screen.
Beyond its moments of hilarity, what makes While We Were Young touching is the authenticity of Baumbach’s view. As he demonstrates in The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha, he brings high comedy to the surface while exploring the depths of feeling that boil beneath. We may laugh at Josh and Cornelia as they try to reverse time while we look in the mirror and ask ourselves what year it is.
Film Nutritional Value
While We’re Young
* Content: High. The outrageous efforts of a New York City couple to recapture their lost youth makes us think about how we accept the passage of time.
* Entertainment: High. As insightful as the content may be, filmmaker Noah Baumbach keeps the laughs flowing in a series of situations ranging from wicked satire to wild physical comedy.
* Message: Medium. While resisting the urge to lecture, Baumbach makes us think about how we might react to the temptation to try to act younger than we are.
* Relevance: Medium. While the film may resonate more with middle-aged (and older) viewers, its human humor will be enjoyed by many.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. You and your older children may have a lot to talk about as you recall the generational differences the characters try to overcome.
While We’re Young is rated R for language. The film runs 97 minutes.
4 Popcorn Buckets
Reel Moments With Noah Baumbach
With his penetrating yet humorous look at how people embrace middle age in While We’re Young, writer-director Noah Baumbach advances his perceptive look at the follies people bring to the changes that life delivers. Each story he tells reveals his curiosity about behavior. And, while his films have serious foundations, he never forgets how to laugh.
In what may be his most personal film, Baumbach explores the impact of divorce on children in the touching The Squid and the Whale from 2005. Rather than only focus on the couple facing this change, he looks at how such a divisive event can redefine a family. And, rather than take sides in the confrontation, he finds enough blame to spread around. As the self-indulgent father whose insensivity betrays his good intentions, Jeff Daniels brings a piercing anger to the quiet sequences, while Laura Linney simmers as a woman who doesn’t want to understand but is too smart to ignore truth. As with many of his films, the director makes New York City a character, as the children shuttle back and forth between their parents’ homes, pretending that change is simply a variation of normal.
Baumbach’s best film to date – Frances Ha from 2013 – introduces us to a marvelous young woman who can’t yet connect all of her dots. The director brings her journey to life in a glorious black-and-white homage to Woody Allen’s Manhattan from 1978. Much as Woody reveals the selfishness of New Yorkers in the 1970s, Baumbaugh captures the directionless ambition of some hipsters today, anchored by Greta Gerwig’s captivating portrayal of a young woman who believes in happy endings without knowing how to create them. As with all Baumbaugh films, Frances Ha never veers from its authentic characters and situations. When we meet Frances, this 27-year old Vassar graduate has yet to discover a professional purpose, maneuvers from relationship to relationship without a personal foundation, and finds herself trapped in expectations for her future without a realistic sense of her present. When her closest friend and roommate moves to a new apartment, she begins to realize the perpetual party of her 20s must be replaced by solid steps to financial and personal security. What makes the film special is how Baumbaugh never resorts to delivering his moral in an obvious way. Instead he lets us observe Frances’ journey to her clarity.
Predictable behavior is at the heart of Baumbach’s outrageous comedy, Greenberg, from 2010, also featuring Ben Stiller as a man, like Josh in While We’re Young, who finds himself in a life he may never have expected. While the director’s other films celebrate life in New York City, Baumbach goes Los Angeles this time to make the city a character with its celebration of excess. Stiller scores a comic triumph as a New Yorker who arrives in California to seek the solace of his brother’s home after suffering an emotional breakdown. But Baumbach pictures Greenberg as such a vain, self-absorbed and disconnected man without an easy to address all his challenges. Stiller brings a sensibility to even the most outrageous situations, helping us see that denying realities doesn’t help anyone.
The power of family denial rings true in Baumbach’s wicked comedy from 2007, Margot at the Wedding, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman as estranged sisters who reunite for what should be a happy family occasion. But Baumbach is too piercing a filmmaker to let them get by without a bit of sibling drama. Nothing is calm, predictable or merry in this celebration of everything that can go wrong when people simply can’t connect, let selfishness get in the way of affection, and refuse to permit each other to be human. As the filmmaker dissects the dysfunction that selfishness can create, we’re viciously entertained by two actresses having a marvelous time bringing out the worst in their characters. For Kidman, who can be so stilted and starched in her performances, Baumbach releases a devastating energy that enables her to dig to the core of this woman who crashes what should be the happiest day of her sister’s life. No one is left unscathed – not even Jack Black as a mild mannered artist – in this examination of the hurt people can inflict on the people who know them best.
In all of his films, Baumbaugh finds messengers for his view of the choices people make in their lives. He makes us believe in his characters, even as they can frustrate, and never resorts to sitcom humor. Instead he bring to life the moments when people find themselves on the verge of self discovery.
And we get to see it all.