Movie review: Noah Baumbach's knack for mixing verbose wit and family drama falters in While We're Young | Arts

Movie review: Noah Baumbach's knack for mixing verbose wit and family drama falters in While We're Young

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Noah Baumbach's favorite roller-blading everyman, Ben Stiller, in While We're Young - COURTESY OF A24 FILMS
  • courtesy of A24 films
  • Noah Baumbach's favorite roller-blading everyman, Ben Stiller, in While We're Young
While We’re Young
★★
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Director Noah Baumbach’s eighth film, While We’re Young, serves up his signature existential crises of the neurotic and monied. Ben Stiller stars as Josh, a film teacher with a middling career and an eight-years unfinished documentary. Josh and his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), are cruising into middle-age and beginning to become anxious about their childlessness when they meet a hip young couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried).

Josh and Cornelia see in Jamie and Darby all the freedom and cultural savvy of 21st-century youth. The twist is that the young couple’s aplomb is made possible by them being children of the Internet, which comes with different ideas of authenticity than those held by the Gen-X Josh and Cornelia. As Jamie’s charm wears off, his careerism starts to show. Paralyzed with insecurity, Josh is left scrambling for the prestige he feels he deserves more than Jamie. Cornelia’s father, successful documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), presides bemusedly over the whole affair as Josh’s disapproving superego.

While We’re Young clumsily tries to skewer the couples’ differing generational ethos through Josh’s paranoid fixation on a certain kind of overburdened authenticity, a premise that is certainly ripe for comedy. But for a film so critical of repurposing and reappropriating, it does a lot of recycling. Stiller, Baumbach’s everyman, is painful to watch even as he plays the same role as in all his movies of the past ten years. Watts, who usually has an operatic talent for female suffering, is given no room for substantive acting and ends up as little more than Josh’s frowny-faced accessory. Driver delivers the same glib, almost affectless performance he did in both Baumbach’s previous feature, Frances Ha, and in the television show Girls. Ultimately, no character betrays enough depth, or even egregious vapidity, to inspire an investment in them, even in their downfall.

Baumbach works in the tradition of Whit Stillman and Woody Allen, a brand of comedy that you either like or you just don’t. This brand is based on the recognition of the most subtle details and cultural references of the UHB (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, a term coined in Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan). When it works, it’s a style of comedy that can be sharp and charming, and when it doesn’t, it comes off as pastiche with no heart. In films such as The Squid and the Whale (2005), Baumbach excelled at this mix of verbose wit and family drama. But While We’re Young is not clever, nor does it have heart.


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