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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

While We're Young

There's always something to like in a Noah Baumbach film, and While We're Young is one of his best. It's a humorous but at times painful look at getting older and realizing you're not going to do everything you thought you could, and what constitutes failure and success.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are a happy, childless couple in their forties. Their best friends have just had a baby. Stiller is a documentary filmmaker who has been working on his latest project for ten years, while his father-in-law (Charles Grodin) is a world-renowned documentarian who is about to receive a prestigious lifetime achievement award.

Into their lives come a couple in their 20s, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. He is also a documentarian, a hipster who wears wingtips (with no socks), a porkpie hat, uses a typewriter, and listens on to vinyl. She makes artisan ice cream. Energized by meeting a young couple, Stiller and Watts at first enjoy a breeze of youth, but then come to understand that there's something to be said for age and wisdom.

At first I found this film glib about youth vs. age--there's a montage in which the two couples are compared, with Stiller choosing a film on Netflix, while Driver pops in a videocassette. This is very obvious writing and directing. But Baumbach gets off that, mercifully, and starts to paint a more subtle picture. I found Driver's character to be the most fascinating--he's callow and manipulative, and just might not be ethical, but he doesn't care. He's what everyone hates about millennials. Driver has had a great couple of years--his weirdo on Girls, Kylo Ren, and now this guy--three vastly different characters.

Though Driver is interesting, Stiller is the main focus (I could have stood to see more of Watts, one of my favorite performers). Baumbach errs in giving Stiller some of his woebegone shtick--he's teaching a class and his PowerPoint doesn't work, he wobbles as he stands on Rollerblades in the subway, he pulls a muscle while bicycling. Still can be a good serious actor, but it's as if he can't (or his director won't) let the clown in him rest. A scene where he learns he has arthritis ("arthritis arthritis?") really resonates, and might have been even funnier had it been an actor who is not a comedian first.

Baumbach, who usually has eclectic casts, reaches into the music world. The friend with the baby is played by Beastie boy Adam Horovitz, and a historian in Stiller's movie is an unrecognizable Peter Yarrow. Charles Grodin plays the father-in-law, and quietly steals every scene he's in.

While We're Young is an engrossing film, and I'd be interested to hear how millennials view it.

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