Noah Baumbach has been on something of a roll lately, and I can't help but feel that it's tied to his lightening up. From his breakthough film The Squid and the Whale, through 2010's Greenberg, he was known for a dark, mean, somewhat menacing tone that ran through his films, infusing them with a sort of nasty, vicious, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf-inspired dialogue, which often affords its own devious yet downtrodden pleasures. But then he met his current muse and girlfriend Greta Gerwig, with whom he co-wrote Frances Ha and the upcoming Mistress America, larks filled with a breezy, funny, almost screwball sensibility, and now he comes out with While We're Young, an obviously personal rumination on generational differences that has some of the funniest, laugh out loud scenes of the year in it.
His Greenberg star Ben Stiller is back starring as Josh, a fortysomething documentarian who made one film and then never quite lived up to his potential, obsessed with the process of getting it right and too distracted by the lethargy of life to really finish it, always suffering under the shadow of his father-in-law, Charles Grodin, a filmmaker from a 60's generation who takes smug pride in his films finding the real life truth in cinema. Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) love each other but are in kind of a rut, struggling with the weight of unmet expectations, since Cornelia has suffered several miscarriages and the two have resigned themselves to a life without kids while having to watch their busy, middle-aged friends all coping with the new baby lifestyle. So when a mid-twentysomething couple suddenly comes into their lives via auditing one of Josh's film classes at his university, their energy, vitality and fresh perspective rejuvenates Josh and Cornelia's desire to live in the moment, instead of dwelling on their present circumstances.
The younger couple is played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, with Driver as Jamie, a wannabe documentary filmmaker himself, who presents himself as worshipful of Josh and a fan of his work, wanting the older man to imbue him with the knowledge of how to make great films to get started on his own career. The ego boost is too attractive for Josh to resist, but as the two spend more and more time together, Jamie's faux hipster douchiness reveals itself for what it really is, as intergenerational warfare proceeds at an increasingly rapidfire pace. Baumbach's script is filled with clever witticisms and observations that feel true, not so much as a blanket statement on millennials or Gen X-ers, but more as the specific natures of these characters brought about by their interactions and battles over their ideas of filmmaking and culture. Yet by being true to these characters, the revelations feel enlightened and real, with interesting points wrought from the conclusions the story comes to. For example, the natural alliance that springs forth between the millennial and baby boomer generation in their propensity for narcissism and willingness to manipulate the truth for their own benefit can't help but feel pretty accurate, leaving poor Josh out in the cold as the whiny, forever downtrodden loser who can't get his own life together enough to make a success out of it but feels plenty put upon by others to complain anyway.
This is a movie that makes you think about all these things while also making you laugh at the same time, as some lines and dialogue sparkle in such a way as to remind you of peak Woody Allen, back when he had his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. It's Allen as if he actually understood the world of today, where fortysomethings are just as tuned into the Internet and their phones as everybody else, but just happen to remember a world and a time when people weren't. The female characters in the movie get a bit of the short shrift, but given that it's clearly Baumbach's story and point of view, I can't fault it too much for staying with Josh's perspective on the world as it affects him. I really like this new, still witty yet relaxed and honest Baumbach- I can't wait to see what he does next.
* * * 1/2