When you’re in your 20s, medical professionals often wave away unhealthy lifestyle habits with a dismissive gesture and an indulgent “It’s OK, you’re young.” Ate two large pizzas at once? It’s OK, you’re young. Went 72 hours without sleeping? It’s OK, you’re young. Recently, however, a seismic shift occurred in the way I perceive myself when a dentist considering my (much reduced) sugary drinks consumption failed to deliver the usual nonchalant dismissal. Instead, I got a wary look, a doubtful pause and a loaded “Well, you’re still young.” It’s a subtle edit but one that speaks volumes. A milestone has been reached. Noah Baumbach’s latest—the prickly and incisive While We’re Young—is about the crossing of that fateful line. More accurately, it’s about the confusion and terror that results from realising that maybe you crossed that line ten years ago.
The film follows middle-aged New York couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) through a tumultuous period of their lives, kicked off by a burgeoning friendship with preternaturally perky twenty-something couple Jamie (Adam Driver in a part only he could have played this well) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Josh is a 44-year-old documentary filmmaker who would undoubtedly be irritated by my opening paragraph. He has arthritis of the knees, appears to need reading glasses and is, most significantly, on the cusp of deducing that a decade might be too long to be working on a six hour would-be magnum opus about the military-industrial complex. Everything changes when he encounters uber-hipsters Jamie and Darcy at a college film class he teaches. Inspired by their energy, creativity and, most of all, their youth, Josh and Cornelia get caught up in a newfound zest for life that mostly expresses itself in various attempts to keep up with the two kids and their seemingly effortless cool. It turns out, however, that Jamie—also a filmmaker—has ulterior motives that may relate more to Cornelia’s father being famous documentarian Leslie Breitbart (played with crusty wisdom by the great Charles Grodin) than to the older pair’s friend potential.
Sure, it’s a knotty examination of intergenerational tension but it’s also a hilarious comedy about a middle-aged couple whose appropriation of cool hats and hip-hop dance classes does little to alleviate their diminishing hipness.
There’s so much going on in this movie that dwelling on any single aspect would undersell everything else. Sure, it’s a knotty examination of intergenerational tension but it’s also a hilarious comedy about a middle-aged couple whose appropriation of cool hats and hip-hop dance classes does little to alleviate their diminishing hipness. It’s a pointedly amusing skewering of urban hipster culture and the narcissism-driven entitlement of millennials but it’s also a melancholy consideration of mid-life malaise and its sometimes crippling effect on emotional well-being and professional prospects. Baumbach—the same approximate age now as Josh and Cornelia—doesn’t skimp on critiquing either side of the generational divide, examining the ways in which generational markers and cultural affinities highlight differences between the young and the old(er). A cultural artifact that has genuine meaning for a generation that experienced it first-hand may just be a kitschy retro object to another, ripe for ironic and entirely casual reappropriation. At one point, Josh and Jamie square off about who has a right to the term “Cookie O’Puss,” originally used to refer to a cake that was popular in the 70s, now recycled with a wink and a giggle as the name of Jamie’s band. Josh argues that only he has earned the right to reference the phrase given that the cake and the TV advertisements associated with it have a personal connection to his childhood. He points out that to Jamie they’re little more than Youtube relics ripe for mockery. “That’s old man talk!” exclaims Jamie. “I am an old man!” retorts Josh.
Baumbach’s 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming, about a group of recent grads clinging to the good old collegiate life, was the young artist’s mournful acknowledgment of the inevitable passing of carefree glory days into responsibility-heavy adulthood. It’s a clever and really rather sad look at recent generations’ tendency to resist moving on from those early cloistered years of secondary and higher education. While We’re Young is a movie made by a forty-something artist fully cognizant of the essential quaintness of the idea that a recent college grad can feel old. You don’t know old until you have arthritis and start seeing the definitive albums of your youth collected by kids as retro artifacts. What Baumbach’s doing is returning us to those twenty-somethings in Kicking and Screaming. Only now they’re 44 and realizing that 22 was a good place to be. But what makes this film successful is its ultimate acceptance of the reality of 44. It is what it is and maybe those 22-year-olds were assholes anyway.