They say that you are as young as you feel, yet society tells us differently, that there are ways of behaving that are acceptable in our teens that must be cast aside when we leave the safety blanket of ‘youth’. This carefree time is replaced with responsibilities and aspirations of a sense of stability but they often coincide with feelings of stagnation and loss of freedom. Noah Baumbach’s previous films have traversed the minefield of adulthood with characters that often struggle with their place in the world, from Nicole Kidman’s neurotic writer in Margot at the Wedding (2007) to Greta Gerwig’s spirited but directionally challenged dancer in Frances Ha (2012). In Greenberg (2010) Baumbach took Ben Stiller’s persona in an unlikeable but effective direction as the selfish titular character and the director and star team up again in what is Baumbach’s most accessible film to date.
Stiller plays Josh, a 40 something documentary film-maker who achieved praise for his first feature but is still struggling with his difficult second film, ten years down the line. He lives with his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) in a comfortable New York existence yet the spark of life has dwindled slightly and whilst their close friends move to the next stage of adult life by becoming parents, they find themselves somewhat directionless, stuck in a rut but unable to muster spontaneity. However Josh’s life is invigorated by the arrival of 20 something’s Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) who appear in one of his lectures and Josh is quickly taken with Jamie who proclaims to be a fan of his work and is a budding documentary maker himself.
The two couples soon form a friendship that sees Josh and Cornelia’s life thrown into a new chapter where everything feels fresh and exciting and where they are taken out of their comfort zone, trying new things like hip hop classes, attending street beach parties and taking part in a shamanic ritual. But the exuberance of the young couples influence turns sour when Josh begins to suspect that he has been hoodwinked by Jamie for his own personal career gain.
Peppered with Baumbach’s usual bitter-sweet temperament this is also his funniest film, showing a flare for comedic sequences that have previously been untapped. In a scene where Josh and Cornelia attend the shamanic ceremony, it is akin to something you expect from Stiller but not from Baumbach, as a group vomiting session unfolds as a result of a heady mix of a herbal drug concoction and Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack. The generational gap between the couples gives the film some comedy touches but it also plays with the ideas of age and technology, for instance we would expect the younger people to be the gadget users yet there is a sequence that establishes Josh and Cornelia as the ones who rely on their smart phones and Netflix subscriptions whilst Jamie and Darby use typewriters and watch old VHS movies. This also adds to the young couple’s hipster cache that turns Josh into a trilby wearer, becoming swept up in the promise of Jamie’s enthusiasm as Adam Driver brings his off kilter buoyancy to his character that he cultivated so well in Girls. Stiller meanwhile uses his mix of wide eyed but neurotic as Josh who goes from bromance to bitter in his relationship with Jamie. Naomi Watts is reliably convincing, finding her moments to let loose between the emotional crutches of her characters motherhood dilemma. The only weak link in the casting is Amanda Seyfried who doesn’t quite gel as a hipster part time ice cream maker, she seems more park avenue than down-town loft conversion.
While we’re Young blends a variety of themes including intergenerational relationships, the boundaries of age, parenthood and artistic integrity but manages to do so at a whip smart pace and a breezy running time. Baumbach has found more of a funny bone but he has also kept the film rooted in the conflicts of modern life which gives it a poignant edge rather than succumbing to frivolity.