In their previous collaboration Greenberg, writer/director Noah Baumbach and star Ben Stiller touched on the conflict between a cynical Gen X slacker and entitled millennials. They've reteamed for While We're Young, and while they again address the newest generation gap, their scope is much wider. The result, a smart and witty look at marriage, art, and middle age, is arguably the best work of Baumbach's career.
Stiller plays Josh Srebnick, a documentary filmmaker who has spent more than a decade crafting an ambitious, and as of now, impossibly long and dull, follow-up to his well-received first movie. He and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are living a comfortable existence as artists in New York, but their marriage is suffering from their inability to have a child. They tell themselves that they're still spontaneous, but in truth they are stuck in a rut.
That is, until Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring documentarian who is full of praise for his work. Soon, hipster twentysomething Jamie and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried) are pulling the middle-aged Josh and Cornelia into their circle, which leads the latter couple to break with their friends their own age, most of whom are dealing with the stresses of new parenthood. Eventually, emboldened by his new friends' creative energy, Josh begins working on a project with Jamie. However, he begins to suspect that the young man's seemingly carefree lifestyle masks grand ambitions.
Right from the opening scene, which features a spectacularly funny joke about a new father's freshly inked tattoo, While We're Young presents Baumbach at the top of his game. He captures the differences between Generation X and millennials with a sharp eye for the faults and merits of both sides, and does so without resorting to caricature. Sure, Josh suffers from the Gen X curse of wanting to be authentic and Jamie lives every moment of his life on social media, but their actions feel organically motivated by the individuals, not preordained by a writer hoping to make stereotypical observations.
Everyone in the cast is excellent. Charles Grodin plays Cornelia's father, a renowned documentarian in his own right, who quietly puts up with his son-in-law's refusal to accept his help -- his sometimes strained, yet always civil relationship with Josh could have supported its own film, but it's handled with depth, nuance, and humor here as just a subplot. Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz scores in his few scenes as Josh's friend; Seyfried plays Darby as cute, but never dumb; and Watts underplays her own character's anxieties so that she meshes well with Stiller's Josh, who wears his neuroses on his sleeve. And while Stiller might be the lead, this becomes Adam Driver's movie. The Girls star's outsize charisma makes him utterly believable as the best friend you've always wanted, as well as completely plausible as a narcissistic nightmare.
At his best, Baumbach captures the messy inner lives of his protagonists without embracing their worst aspects or condescending to them. He's a warmhearted satirist who lacks any whiff of romanticism, yet believes that people are capable of being their best selves. The irony of While We're Young is that while the main character spends the movie drowning in his own artistic ambitions, Baumbach has fulfilled his, fashioning the funniest, most welcoming, and unapologetically enjoyable film of his career without sacrificing any of his wit or edge.