Noah Baumbach’s keenly observed generational-divide comedy “While We’re Young” reaps universal truths from characters who inhabit a specific arty world.
Then the film dives so deep into that arty world that only a few people will relate. And those people are too busy trying to scrounge up grant money to be able to get to the Tower Theatre this weekend.
But when “Young” is good, it is delicious, playing on 40-somethings’ resistance to being considered “middle-aged.”
Ben Stiller’s fearless performance as Josh, a documentary filmmaker creatively stuck on a decade-long, unfinished project, anchors a film full of fine performances. Josh’s wheel-spinning state leaves him open to the flattery of Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring young filmmaker who befriends Josh.
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Stiller played a square opposite hipsters two decades ago in “Reality Bites,” and he’s adept at playing the fool in general. In his more mainstream films, he tempers his characters’ doofus-like qualities with a clear desire to be liked. He does not do that here, just as he didn’t in “Greenberg,” Baumbach’s 2010 film in which Stiller played a caustic loser who years earlier abandoned his rock band on the cusp of stardom. In both films, Stiller is pigheaded and vulnerable in equal measure without ever quite reaching likable.
“Young” is funnier and lighter than “Greenberg,” but their existence together and with Baumbach’s 2013 film “Frances Ha” (a collaboration with actress/screenwriter and Sacramento native Greta Gerwig), which centered on a failed dancer, suggests the director holds a fondness for tales of the artistically incomplete. Not to psychoanalyze Baumbach, but making films about stunted creativity seems a smart way to confront one’s own potential creative demons.
Josh believes himself a purist who never would contrive circumstances to suit a documentary narrative. So he just keeps waiting for his doc to become interesting, resulting in a 61/2-hour rough cut consisting mostly of talking-head interviews with the same, uncharismatic political expert. A scene in which Josh tries to “pitch” his unsexy project to a potential investor, with Stiller digging in and flailing at the same time, is discomfort comedy at its finest.
Josh is married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), daughter of, and producer for, a Maysles brothers-level documentarian (Charles Grodin, serving as audience stand-in via his character’s exasperation with Josh). Josh was the veteran filmmaker’s protégé until his ego and pride got in the way. Josh left to become his own man – a man whose filmmaking grants have dried up and who teaches adult-education classes.
The friendly Jamie and his equally Brooklynite wife, Darby (a likable Amanda Seyfried) – young people who prefer VHS to streaming video and believe there should be a live chicken in every loft – appear in Josh’s class one day. Jamie tells Josh he is a big fan of Josh’s first film, which is obscure but actually completed.
Driver brings the same bounding, puppyish manner to Jamie that he does to Adam on HBO’s “Girls.” But where Adam is messy, Jamie is cultivated. Jamie has orchestrated his life to be just-so. Or as the kids say, curated it. He chose his jaunty hat and stove-pipe pants with the same care with which he chose his opening remarks to Josh.
A person less ruled by ego than Josh might question why a cool young man would seek him out and want to be friends. Cornelia finds Jamie’s interest in Josh curious at first. But like Josh, she does not have a lot going on, and thus becomes susceptible to the youth-by-proximity appeal of hanging with Jamie and Darby.
Cornelia’s dad is between projects, and hers and Josh’s best couple friends (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz, the latter a Beastie Boy playing beautifully against type as a symbol of middle-aged domesticity) are busy with a new baby. The pals encourage Josh and Cornelia to have kids as well, but after a few miscarriages, Josh and Cornelia have closed the door on parenthood.
As Jamie works hard to befriend Josh, inviting him to bicycle through city streets wearing matching hats, Darby enlists Cornelia to join her at hip-hop dance classes. These setups lead to fun visual gags that contrast limber 25-year-olds with their creakier counterparts and showcase how the physical realities of middle age contrast with our society’s emphasis on being forever young. Wear all the pork-pie hats you want, 45-year-old, but you are going to feel that long bike ride the next day.
Watts, here as in the recent “Birdman” and “St. Vincent,” shows a flair for comedy without compromising her natural gravity. Cornelia becomes a vehicle for Baumbach’s more serious explorations of societal expectations of middle-aged people. Watts lends a touch of worry to Cornelia during the older couple’s supposedly freeing adventures with the youngsters. Her performance suggests Cornelia wonders whether this is all there is – that it’s either giving birth to infants or hanging with people who are practically infants.
Stiller does not let worry land on his face in the film’s first half. Josh is determinedly happy, noticing but then looking past Jamie’s bad habits (expecting Josh to pay when they go out) and questionable taste (Jamie views “Eye of the Tiger” as a post-ironic, genuinely good song).
But as Baumbach shifts “Young” to focus on Josh’s and Jamie’s filmmaking processes, Josh goes from purposely oblivious to Jamie’s flaws to razor-sharp in his criticism of them. The change is jarring. Josh starts to seem bitter instead of just lost, and a larger look at generational differences becomes a study of conflicting artistic approaches.
Woody Allen, an obvious influence on Baumbach, often writes lead characters who are creatives. But his films usually are not about that. Allen understands that the creative process does not interest viewers like a caper or a secret love affair does. Baumbach errs by thinking otherwise.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
WHILE WE’RE YOUNG
Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried
Director: Noah Baumbach
Rated R (language)