While We’re Young review – excruciatingly pleasurable mid-life crisis comedy

Noah Baumbach’s portrait of Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a middle-aged couple who befriend dazzling twentysomethings would be unbearably sad if it weren’t so funny

Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is a comedy of middle youth: the story of one man’s midlife crisis, made more exquisitely horrible by his making a fool of himself – not with a younger woman, but a younger man. It is not a sexual relationship, but something more painfully intimate: a matter of self-esteem and social status.

Ben Stiller once again plays the role of a middle-aged man whose mind has furred like a kettle with disappointment: the suppressed resentment of others’ success shows in his face. He is Josh, a once-promising documentary film-maker easing placidly into his 40s, teaching a film theory class but beginning to fear that his latest work, a solemn non-fiction film on which he has so far spent eight fruitless years of part-time work, may never get finished. He has a very happy marriage with Cornelia (Naomi Watts), but resents his father-in-law (Charles Grodin), himself an intimidatingly successful documentarian, a titan in the league of a Wiseman or Maysles. Cornelia and Josh’s friends are having babies, and they start to feel antsy and self-conscious about being childless.

The film team review While We’re Young

At this uniquely dangerous moment, their lives are invaded by Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a dazzlingly seductive twentysomething couple. Jamie, a would-be director, professes he is a huge admirer of Josh’s work – although Darby, it seems, is a little unfulfilled in a way that mirrors Cornelia. The lives of these young people seem so much freer, sharper, more passionate and captivating to poor Josh. He is fascinated by their casual nobrow consumption of high and low culture, so easily available digitally, and falls a little in love with them. This is the YOLO generation, through whom he might miraculously be able to live once again. He persuades Cornelia to neglect their own ageing, greying circle of friends to hang out with Jamie and Darby, and mentor Jamie in his film-making career. He even tragically affects to wear a hipster hat indoors like his new best friend. But from the standpoint of someone older and more disillusioned, might there not be something strange and disturbing about these young people – in fact, all young people?

As Jamie, Adam Driver is brilliant at conveying the fearless, tactless conceit of a very entitled young person. (I’ve seen nothing like it since Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s 2011 film Margaret). Jamie never has the good grace to thank Josh for anything he does for him, but instead lavishes him with man-flirting and praise, and indulges in the annoying mannerism of putting his palms together, as if saying namaste. This is precisely what infatuates Josh: the idea of being on equal terms with a self 2.0, a Dorian Gray portrait taken down from the attic – a self-affirming protege or Mini-Me. Yet the awful truth is that he is turning into Jamie’s maxi-me. Amanda Seyfried and Naomi Watts cleverly create their own symbiosis: aware they are being sidelined by what is going on, they are at once sympathetic and suspicious of each other.

Baumbach has produced another excruciatingly pleasurable and wince-inducing study in insecurity. Josh is, of course, very like Woody Allen’s Cliff Stern, the documentary film-maker in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) who, at the nadir of professional failure, is forced to film a tribute to his hated brother-in-law, a highly successful man at home in the same world of tuxedo dinners and speeches from which Ben Stiller’s Josh feels excluded. His relationship with super-cool Jamie is maybe closer to Bette Davis and Anne Baxter’s in All About Eve (1950), and another, more distant inspiration for their curdling bromance could be the careworn journalist Albert Brooks and smooth young newsreader William Hurt in James L Brooks’s Broadcast News (1987).

Ben Stiller’s hipster bona fides: yes to vinyl and organics, no (twice!) to skinny jeans - video

The terrible realisation is that Jamie might actually be more talented than Josh, but that could be because he is young. To be middle-aged in a roomful of young people is to be Salieri in a roomful of Mozarts: they have boundless enthusiasm and energy, and are not encumbered – or as encumbered – by the knowledge of where the paths of glory lead.

Baumbach’s movie encourages you to make an emotional investment in the authenticity of love and marriage, or at any rate, Josh and Cornelia’s love and marriage, and to save your amused cynicism for the awfulness of careerist obsession. This means the pair finally, and paradoxically, have some emotional growing up to do – and that perhaps comes a little too easily. None of which stops While We’re Young from being a very sad and very funny film.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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