Everyone has mid-life crises. (Heck, I feel like I’m going through a quarter-life one as I write this.) That’s why While We’re Young is so relatable. Noah Baumbach has given us a modern take on the moment when Generation X-ers find the markers of their youth -- like records, typewriters and lace-up oxfords -- now re-appropriated as ironic hipster accessories. It’s also a time for reflection: reflecting on all the things we wanted to do but didn’t for whatever reason; reflecting on who we wish we were but aren’t; and pining for a second chance that might be too far gone to revisit.
But what’s more appealing about While We’re Young is that it delivers far more than it promises. It’s not just a film about an aging couple trying to recapture the essence of their lives back when they could ride bikes without exacerbating their knee arthritis. It’s about realizing that the world you thought you knew has been replaced by different values and outlooks, and what it means to sacrifice the old for the new (and what we lose by doing so). All these questions eloquently stem from the relationship between an older couple, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), now in their 40s, and the 20-somethings Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) who land in their universe.
Josh is a documentarian who’s been working on project that is too stale to keep one’s attention. He had high aspirations for himself after his first film efforts, hoping to earn the respect of his producer wife and his father-in-law, a renowned filmmaker. This is just one example of life getting in the way of his goals. To make ends meet, he teaches film classes — even though he’s still struggling to maneuver Power Point. Cornelia is similarly reevaluating her life. It’s now too late for her to get pregnant, and she can’t help but wonder what her life would be with a child.
Their dueling mid-life crises kicks into overdrive when they encounter Jamie and Darby. Jamie is a prospective filmmaker who wears fedoras and wingtips, and who aspires to be like Josh. Darby is just as much of a textbook example of a hipster. As someone you’d encounter in Girls (Driver’s involvement begs comparisons), this modern flower child makes her own ice cream. Together they live in a loft that houses an extensive vinyl collection, their pet chicken and that third, slightly odd roommate all 20-somethings have when they’re trying to make a life for themselves in the city. They excite Josh and Cornelia, and the more Josh mentors and hangs out with Jamie, the more he latches onto his energy. It’s not long before Josh is buying his own fedora and Cornelia is going to hip-hop classes with Darby, instead of falling into their average evening of Netflix binging. In one of the more comical scenes of the entire film, they all attend an ayahuasca ceremony, in which they hallucinate while drinking the psychedelic liquid and “vomit up their demons.” It’s in moments like these that While We’re Young dazzles you with an emotional and relatable element — we’re all getting older and want to feel young — before it ultimately expands these discussions to reveal their true meaning.
While We’re Young is one of Noah Baumbach’s more accessible films, with solid performances all around. Stiller thrives in his realistic character and brings these sympathetic fears and motivations to life. On the other spectrum is Driver, who continues his rise to become one of the most talented young actors in the industry. Unfortunately, Watts and Seyfried bare the brunt of the film’s gender imbalance. Watts performs her role well, though Cornelia isn’t as creatively motivated as her husband, which is all too prevalent given she’s on break from work. Darby is similarly directionless. We don’t really get a sense of who she is or what she wants from life, while her boyfriend is overly ambitions.
It’s funny to think that the man who brought us Frances Ha would have trouble giving more oomph to his female characters this time around. Ultimately, though, While We’re Young is a touching ballad to growing old.