While We’re Young movie review

Featuring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin (Lesley – father in law), Adam Horoviz (Fletcher)
Writer/Director: Noah Baumbach

Movie website: while-were-young.com/
Australian release date: Thur 16 April

Reviewers’ verdicts:
rolanstein: A funny, absorbing and thought-provoking contemporary intergenerational comedy.
Karen: Funny and full of ideas that will resonate with people of all ages.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
Going by the trailer and promo blurb, the premise of this latest feature from director Noah Baumbach is dodgy, to say the least: a childless New York couple in their mid-forties begin hanging out with Gen Y “hipsters” (involuntary sneer) and get their mojo back. So, silly-old-fartdom now includes Xers as well as Boomers (hawk, spit-tooh), wisdom and inspirational living being the exclusive repository of the young – is that it?

Shit no! This is contemporary intergenerational comedy at its finest, and anything but simplistic or predictable. In fact, there’s so much going on here, it’s a challenge to get a handle on it all in a single viewing.

The story in a nutshell: Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are jaded, personally and professionally. This may stem partly from their not being able to have children. Whatever, the spark has gone out of their relationship, they struggle to identify with their kid-obsessed friends, and Josh is bogged down on a documentary film he has been working on for a decade, in between lecturing at uni. When one of his students, aspiring filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver), declares himself a fan of Josh’s early film work, it is the beginning of an improbable friendship. Enchanted with Jamie and girlfriend Darby’s (Amanda Seyfried) young bohemian world, Josh and Cornelia drift apart from their peer group and turn back the clock for a second stab at their twenties, this time under the mentorship of their new young friends. In time, however, it dawns on them that all is not as cool as it seems with Jamie and co, and that there are undeclared motives behind his befriending them.

This is a shrewd set-up, enabling Baumbach not only to contrast the generations in an entertaining manner that frequently yields humourous dividends, but to target a wide demographic. Gen Yers love a selfie, so they’re going to be ripe for this flick, and older generations will enjoy taking a trip down the rabbit hole to today’s Hipsterville with mine hosts Josh and Cornelia. What will they find there? Won’t it be a case of everything old is new again?

Well, yes and no. Retro is cool with today’s young bohos, to be sure. Jamie and Darby share an apartment that could pass for the sorts of 60s and 70s digs Boomers misbehaved their uni days in: lots of lounging room, arty clutter, shabby wooden floor-to-ceiling shelving full of vinyl records. But there are differences: this is, indeed, a new world, despite the relics of yesteryear it retains. As a wondrous Josh observes, there is “no high or low” culture for these young kool kats. They mix musical styles, accepting everything – a function of boundless tolerance and enthusiasm, as Josh reads it, or of lack of taste and discernment born of ignorance and inexperience? You be the judge – Baumbach’s merely leading the evidence. And what of the solitary caged chicken confined to a small cage in the living room? A token of the sustainable DIY urban food production movement (tick), or an instance of thoughtless animal cruelty (cross)? These kinds of discussion-provoking contradictions are woven extensively throughout this sharp, well-conceived work. Blink and you’ll miss ‘em.

As subtly complex and invested (crowded?) with thought as the screenplay is, it is never ponderous in its effect. There is a sense of play that keeps things light, including a wilful film-convention-defying moment towards the end that threatens a fingers-down-the-throat Hollywood finale, then digs us in the ribs with an assuring “only kidding”!

Buoyed by mostly terrific performances from actors who clearly relish their parts and the quality of the material, While We’re Young is absorbing, chuckle-inducing, at times moving, and always thoroughly entertaining. Feel-good with brains – you gotta love it.

Review 2: (Karen)
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I can’t remember who said that. I could look it up, and it would be the work of but a moment in this day of continual web-connectedness – or I could choose to leave the question open, because what is this obsession with knowing every detail, and tracking down every fact? And that story: is it fiction, or documentary, and are they both anyway about you – that is, me – and who owns my – that is, your – story? Confused? You won’t be if you have followed these issues through media theorists and writers from McLuhan through Roth through Garner, inter alia.

And if you have, you’ll lap up this engaging extended sitcom/Bildungsroman about Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), who encounter and are seduced by the freewheeling possibilities of youth embodied by Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried).

Bildungsroman? Surely Stiller and Watts are too old? But here’s the thing: after you’ve put away childish things and made the transition to “adulthood”, what else might you still have to learn? That’s the genius of While We’re Young, that along with film theory and moral issues around ambition, vocation, and personal relationships, one of the great cultural phenomena of the last century is scrutinised: that contraception has enabled a prolonged period of personal freedom and selfishness. The choice to have children (even when sadly denied to some) is amusingly presented as a two-edged sword, and the fact that Josh and Cornelia’s best mates have moved on to the next stage of their lives evidences a real dilemma for friend groups who are out of step.

The focus here is on Josh and his stalled doco-filmmaking ambitions, although While We’re Young is sort of a sequel to Frances Ha. Josh has “settled” for a career in academia, while his wife Cornelia produces for her famous and revered father, Leslie Breitbart (who acknowledges that his ambition was realised to the detriment of his relationship with his wife and daughter). Jamie and Darby are all potential and their hipness knows no bounds: jeez, they play vinyl on a turntable and build their own furniture – though I don’t know how cool it really is to keep a chicken indoors in a tiny cage. When Jamie’s doco-filmmaking ambitions clash with Josh’s principles, their bromance is tested, and while the resolution of this plot line is not entirely satisfactory, I for one am glad no punches are thrown, and the treatment is primarily comedic.

Recently I came across this observation about opening and closing scenes in films. It’s something I notice, and the critical question always is how successful it is in explicating, illustrating or bracketing a core theme. While We’re Young opens and closes with images of babies, the first representing a possibility sadly or mercifully lost to our protagonists, and the last demonstrating a terrifying or fantastic potential for us all. This is not really the primary concern of the film but it’s certainly the easiest one to capture in an image that may have been a pragmatic and tonally appropriate choice by a director whose script tried to cover too many ideas.

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3 thoughts on “While We’re Young movie review”

  1. Enjoyed your review, Karen. Lots of common ground between us with this one, and a few differences.

    Interesting comment on the opening and closing scenes, although I’m not sure I’d agree that Baumbach tried to cover too much in his script. I mean “I’m not sure” quite literally! Certainly there was a hell of a lot going on, but I enjoyed that, and not being able to pin the film down. Just when you thought you might have been able to, it took another turn or ended up somewhere unexpected. I like that quality, with two provisios:
    1. as long as it does not undermine or distract from the coherence of the piece (which it didn’t IMO), and
    2. as long as the unpredictability doesn’t come across as self-conscious or try-hard (again, which it didn’t as far as I was concerned).

    And thanks for that beginning/ending comparison video link: not sure that the examples included in the clips proved a lot, but great idea worth exploring.

    Just as an aside, something that gets up my nose a bit is the frequency with which films end with a shot of a road or track going off into the distance. It’s such an obvious metaphor, and SO cliched, but even terrific and highly original flicks very often feature closing scenes of this type. If I was a filmmaker, I would avoid cliches like that, I know that much. But maybe I’m sweating the small stuff.


  2. I reckon there’s a whole series of posts about film cliches! The one that makes me groan is rain outside during pivotal scenes. Generally I laugh at the ones that have become first unintentionally, then purposely funny: all the metaphors for sex, for example, like trains and tunnels and fireworks. Very mature cheddar!


  3. Hahaha! Yes indeed! That series has to happen!

    Right with you on sex metaphors – ALWAYS ludicrous, especially today. Hitchcock etc can be excused (but those trains into tunnels shots still get me smirking).

    One instance of a more recent completely gratuitous sex metaphor that springs to mind was in that James Franco coming-of-age crap about the sleazebag teacher – forget the title. One or both of us reviewed it. Anyway, it showed an actual sex scene of Franco getting it on with his virgin (well, she was moments before) student, then there was a cut to a silhouette of trees in the forest “penetrating” the sky. Err, why the metaphor when you’ve just witnessed the real thang? A case of immature cheddar?


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