In 'While We're Young,' The Border Between Ridicule And Sympathy Is Thin

Mar 27, 2015
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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In 2010, writer-director Noah Baumbauch and actor Ben Stiller collaborated on the abrasive comedy-drama "Greenberg." Now they've reunited with something more upbeat - a comedy called "While We're Young." Stiller and Naomi Watts play a married couple in their 40s, befriended by a 20-something couple, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young" gets off to such a fun start, I forgot for a while it was a Baumbach film. I'm not saying I don't enjoy some of his work - only that his view of parents, siblings, husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, friend-friends - pretty much all humans down the line - tends to be sour and distrustful. Here for the first two-thirds, Baumbach actually seems to care for the people he's making fun of.

His protagonists are Josh and Cornelia, a sad, mid-40ish husband and wife played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. Josh is an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker who's been working on his magnum opus for a decade, but still has no handle on it. Cornelia works for her father, a documentary filmmaking legend, who's frankly disappointed with his son-in-law's non-career. Josh and Cornelia wanted kids but couldn't conceive, and they're increasingly alienated from their child-centric friends who treat them with an odd mixture of pity and resentment.

But then their lives open up. Josh meets a pair of hipsters in their 20s - Adam Driver as Jamie and Amanda Seyfried as Darby, who know his early work and welcome him and Cornelia into the world of 20-something Brooklyn creative types. Suddenly, Josh and Cornelia are playing ball, biking, dancing into the night. They pass on a weekend with older friends for a druggy vision quest in which participants struggle to express deep thoughts, vomit into buckets held chest-high and calmly resumed speaking, unfazed by the high ratio of puke to insight. Josh and Cornelia are dimly aware of how silly they look, but as they tell their best friends, played by Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz, they feel transformed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHILE WE'RE YOUNG")

MARIA DIZZIA: (As Marina) We're the boring couple with a baby. What have you guys been doing? Tell us something fun.

BEN STILLER: (As Josh) Oh, we met this interesting couple, Jamie and Darby. He's a young documentarian, and she makes ice cream.

NAOMI WATTS: (As Cornelia) I don't know what to make of them, honestly. I like her.

STILLER: (As Josh) They make everything. It's infectious. For about 12 hours, I thought I could build my own desk.

WATTS: (As Cornelia) There's something about being around them that energizes you, you know?

DIZZIA: (As Marina) How old are they?

STILLER: (As Josh) Twenty...

WATTS: (As Cornelia) Twenty-five, 26...

STILLER: (As Josh) Twenty-six, 27.

DIZZIA: (As Marina) They're children.

ADAM HOROVITZ: (As Fletcher) Yeah, nine years ago they couldn't vote.

DIZZIA: (As Marina) But they're married.

STILLER: (As Josh) Why, you should see this guy's record collection - it's Jay-Z, it's Thin Lizzy, it's Mozart. His taste is democratic. It's "The Goonies" and it's "Citizen Kane." They don't distinguish between high and low. It's wonderful.

HOROVITZ: (As Fletcher) When did "The Goonies" become a good movie?

EDELSTEIN: "While We're Young" has an agreeable hubbub like Woody Allen's recent talk fests, but looser and less thesis-driven. And it shows off Baumbach's often marvelous ear for the self-congratulated auditory language of closed ecosystems, be they Manhattanites with kids or Brooklynites just out of college. The border between ridicule and sympathy is thin and wobbly, which is good.

In his other films, "Greenberg," for example, which also stars Stiller, Baumbach's satire makes you squirm and cringe. He strips his characters of dignity. Here I think we're supposed to get the feeling that Josh's euphoria won't last, that Jamie is too young and hungry to let the older man's angst slow him down. But this is not a design for living. But we love Josh and Cornelia for trying to change.

I never expected the movie to go where it does, though. Without giving too much away, it becomes another movie - a problem melodrama like Allen's "Crimes And Misdemeanors," only clunkier and more jarring. The film's most entertaining question - can we transcend the limitations of age and be genuinely rejuvenated by young people? - turns out to be beside the point. "While We're Young" is still worth seeing for the actors and that wonderful first two-thirds. It's an especially nice surprise to see Charles Grodin is Cornelia's father, his biggest role in ages. Maybe Stiller thought he owed Grodin after making such a mess of Grodin's old role in the terrible remake of "The Heartbreak Kid." But I wish Grodin hadn't been made such a grim withholding presence and that the end wasn't so awash in moralism and disgust. That chip on Baumbach's shoulder hadn't disappeared after all. It was hiding under a shoulder pad, waiting for the big reveal.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, we talk with Kevin Kruse. He's the author of the new book "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.