Movie News & Reviews

In ‘While We’re Young,’ middle-aged angst isn’t all that funny: 2.5 stars

A couple in their 40s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) find themselves in a rut.
A couple in their 40s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) find themselves in a rut. A24

There may have been a time when we aged — if not gracefully — at least appropriately.

But in a society where youth is worshipped and Botox is a household word, how does one come to terms with getting older?

That question is at the heart of “While We’re Young,” writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy — albeit a dour comedy that could have used a lot more laughs.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia, 40-something New Yorkers out of sync not just with youth but with their own peers. While their friends are now fully invested in parenthood and career paths, Josh and Cornelia have managed to avoid most of the trappings of middle age.

He’s a documentary filmmaker who has spent the last decade futzing around with a project about a grizzled philosopher (Peter Yarrow of folk music fame) that he’ll probably never finish and that nobody will want to see. She’s the producer for her father, a legendary grand old man of documentaries.

They’ve no children, no car, no mortgage.

But their biological clocks are accelerating — he’s got arthritis and she’s conflicted over her inability to have a baby. Mortality is rearing its ugly head.

Enter Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple auditing Josh’s documentary film class at a New York City university. Jamie endears himself to the filmmaker by claiming his life was changed by Josh’s early (and only successful) documentary.

Pretty soon the two couples are hanging out. After years of slowly settling into a comfortable funk, Josh and Cornelia find themselves challenged and entertained by their young friends. He takes up bicycling and starts wearing a hipster hat like Jamie’s; she accompanies Darby to a hip-hop dance class.

Moreover, Jamie and Darby seem to embody a wisdom, a satisfying way of life, that has largely eluded the older couple. This leads to a psychedelic-fueled “spiritual” weekend where they all wear white and lug around their own vomit buckets.

Josh is flattered when he’s asked to be Jamie’s mentor on the younger man’s nonfiction film. But it becomes apparent that Josh’s traditional documentary sensibilities are hopelessly out of touch with his young pal’s Internet-driven approach. Issues of truth and responsibility that consume Josh are blithely ignored by Jamie in his quest to make an entertaining movie.

And then Josh begins to question Jamie’s true motives behind the friendship.

“While We’re Young” bears more than a few similarities to Woody Allen’s far superior “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), in which the Woodman also played a creatively stalled and self-obsessed documentarian. Both films mix humor and serious content.

But as was the case with the last Baumbach/Stiller collaboration, 2010’s “Greenberg,” Stiller’s portrayal of self-absorption grates. And while this film generates a few chuckles with its observations of middle-aged anxiety, it’s not all that funny.

It’s easy to appreciate what Baumbach is aiming for in “While We’re Young,” but it feels more like an intellectual exercise than an involving, emotional encounter.

Here’s what does work: Adam Driver’s performance. This young actor (HBO’s “Girls,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “This Is Where I Leave You”) is given a tremendous challenge — to portray Jamie as both charming and suspicious, as simultaneously open and manipulative — and to do so while maintaining an ambiguous aura that defies easy interpretation.

Driver makes it look easy.

(At Glenwood Arts, Studio 30, Tivoli, Town Center.)

Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.

‘WHILE WE’RE YOUNG’

1/2

Rated R

Time: 1:37

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