THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!
A few weeks ago, a delicately beautiful young woman approached me and asked if I wanted to go to the movies with her. "What movie do you want to see?" I asked. "I want to laugh" she said, "let's go see Ben Stiller in While We're Young". After an extended uncomfortable silence, I dryly retorted, "I thought you said you wanted to laugh." I had zero interest in seeing While We're Young for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that I have an instinctive, gut-level impulse to punch both of the male actors in the film, Ben Stiller and Adam Driver, right in their stupid, idiotic, oh-so-punchable faces. Add to that the fact that I have a pretty strong revulsion to much of writer/director Noah Baumbach's previous work, The Squid and the Whale being the lone and notable exception, and you have a recipe for a nasty case of movie rage on my part. But when a charming young woman asks me to a movie, even a movie I don't want to see, who the hell am I to say no? As I do with all beautiful women, I relented to her request. And so we were off to the theatre to see While We're Young.
Chalk it up to low expectations, or the attractive lady on my arm, but While We're Young actually won me over. I know, I know, I am just as surprised as you are about this turn of events. I mean, watching Ben Stiller and Adam Driver for an hour and a half sounds more like some heinous form of torture banned by the U.N. rather than a form of entertainment I'd pay for, but gosh darn it if those two punchable asshats didn't pull it off.
Now you may be wondering why I am so strongly repulsed by Stiller and Driver. This is a good question, and I can honestly tell you that I have no idea. Or at least I am not consciously aware of why they irritate me so much. I've never met them or heard a bad word about either of them personally from anyone I know who knows them. I've actually even enjoyed some Ben Stiller films in the past too, although I can't name them off the top of my head and don't want to waste my mental energy searching the dark recesses of my mind trying to find them. Regardless of why I feel the way I do, I do feel it. There is just something about the both of them and their dopey, moronic faces that quickly triggers the punch reflex in me. I readily acknowledge this is much more an indictment of me than of them. (Although to be fair to Adam Driver, I have that same "punch reflex" reaction to every single person who has ever appeared on the show Girls, or who has ever even watched the show Girls, or has even thought about watching the show Girls. I don't like the show Girls, just wanted to make that clear. That said, I am not exactly Girls target audience, so if I did like Girls, Girls would probably be doing it wrong.)
Now that my irrational Stiller/Driver hate has been outed and explored, you can have some sense of what an accomplishment it is for Baumbach, Stiller and Driver to get me to like their movie. It is an accomplishment of Herculean proportions. How did they do it? Let's take a look, shall we?
While We're Young is the story of New York based documentary filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) and his producer wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), both of whom are in their forties and childless. Josh and Cornelia are losing all of their friends their own age to parenthood and are struggling to maintain their identities as artists and creative, cool people. Then they meet aspiring documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young hipster couple in their twenties who reignite Josh and Cornelia's zest for life and creative living. Through Jamie and Darby, Josh and Cornelia are born again hipsters. Josh wears a hipster hat like Jamie, and Cornelia takes hip-hop dance class with Darby.
The story of While We're Young is straightforward enough, it is the tale of all of us as we age and try to stay current, cool and relevant. This is a fools errand of course, but that doesn't stop us from trying anyway. What made While We're Young resonate with me is that it very closely resembled my own life's journey, or at least my artistic life's journey. Stiller's Josh is a Brooklynite, a self tortured artist, and he worships his art with a religious reverence. I am guilty on all counts (although I have relocated my existential angst from Brooklyn, the city of my birth, to Los Angeles, the city of my death…most likely). The film not only mimicked my experience, but understood it and, at a very deep level, respected it. That is a great credit to director Baumbach, who is of my generation and shares a similar temperament, taste and worldview. He may have cut me to the bone with his insightful look at Josh's/my life, but he did it with surgical precision and I tip my hipster cap to him for it.
The generational struggle, be it Gen X'ers versus Baby Boomers, or Millennials versus Gen X'ers, is cyclical. The struggling artistic purist of today will be replaced with the corporate crowd pleaser of tomorrow. It happened to the baby boomers, it happened to the Gen X'ers and it has already happened with the millennials. But there are always holdouts from each generation. Like Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific Islands who never knew that World War Two had ended, so it is with the generational holdouts. I know because I am one of them, and so it Stiller's Josh. We are true believers and we have such a respect and reverence for great art that we are exhilarated when we see a talented and equally, in our eyes, honorable artist in a younger generation, and indignantly horrified when we see the sellout, faux artists in that same generation, or any other generation. This is the struggle of the purist. For reasons too elaborate to get into here, Generation X is a group with a higher Purist ratio than other generations, and with Millennials, it seems as though Purists are a rare breed, and a nearly extinct one at that. Although the reality is much more likely to be that there are probably just as many Millennial Purists as there are Gen X Purists, but due to the seismic shift toward corporatism in the creative economy over the last twenty-five years, they are much, much harder to find. With this in mind, the two generations are wonderfully represented in While We're Young by Stiller's Josh (Gen X) and Driver's Jamie (Millennials).
This generational struggle is what I think will make While We're Young interesting for all sorts of people, not just Brooklynite artistic purists like myself. Releasing the mantle of being one of the cool people to the younger generation who are, by definition, the cool ones now, can be a catastrophic event for some people's ego and identity. But that doesn't make it any less inevitable. This is the story of While We're Young, this is the story of me, this is the story of everyone, sooner or later, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.
As for the rest of the film, it is well made. I laughed out loud quite a bit, or to put it in terms the kids use today I "lol'd". (See how cool I am, kids? I know all the lingo! Kids? Kids? Why are you rolling your eyes and laughing at me? I'm hip…I'm not jive!!) Stiller is excellent, creating not just a character, but a real person, who is at once frustratingly stubborn yet genuine and endearing. Naomi Watts, as usual, gives a solid performance. Her Cordelia is vibrant and carries a palpable wound that gives her a strength and a fragile charm.
Adam Driver is…good. He uses his unlikability to his great advantage in the film. I'm not supposed to feel completely at ease with Jamie, or to completely like him…and I don't. So mission accomplished. This helps drive the story and Driver is a great foil for Stiller to play off. Driver, who is tall, with a commanding physical presence and a goofy confidence, paired with Stiller who is short, neurotic and desperately desperate, makes for a fantastically and uncomfortably poor pairing, which is why it works so well.
Amanda Seyfried is an actress I always enjoy watching, and she is interesting and very compelling here as Darby but is terribly under used. The film focuses more on Josh and Jaime than it does on Cordelia and Darby, which works out fine in the end, but I did wish I saw more of Watts and Seyfried…maybe because I like them very much as actors and don't want to punch them like I do with their male co-stars. Regardless, I think there is great potential for a similar film to be made from the female perspective.
In conclusion, While We're Young was a very pleasant surprise. It is a genuinely funny, interesting and painfully honest film that keeps you engaged and laughing. Like me, you may only be laughing at yourself because the films bare bones honesty makes you so very uncomfortable, but you will be laughing nonetheless.
Oh…and one more thing. This is very difficult to type with my fists clenched so tightly but…a job well done by Ben Stiller and Adam Driver. You both did excellent work in the film, and I respect your talent. I offer this to you both...I cannot promise to try not to want to punch you in your stupid faces anymore…but I do promise to try to try not to want to punch you in your stupid faces anymore. Sorry, it's the best I can do, believe me. Now…GET THE HELL OFF MY LAWN!!!