While We're Young isn't Noah Baumbach's greatest film. It's more like a collection of his greatest hits. It revisits the nostalgia for the freedom and energy of twentysomethings that the director explored in Frances Ha (2012) and its companion piece, Mistress America, due later this year. It offers a portrait of a once-promising young man who's become a cranky middle-aged man not dissimilar to the one in Greenberg (2010). And, as Baumbach did so memorably in The Squid and the Whale (2005), here he once again zooms in on the fragile ego of a creative personality.
Ben Stiller reteams with the writer-director to play a 44-year-old documentary filmmaker named Josh. In a perfect world, by the way, teaming with Baumbach is all Stiller would do. He's the perfect vessel for the auteur's angst and his perpetual fascination with youth and where the hell it could have gone.
Josh is married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), who happens to be the daughter of legendary documentary filmmaker Leslie Breitbart (the suddenly ubiquitous Charles Grodin). But Josh and his father-in-law have less in common than it might at first appear. Breitbart is a peer of documentarians Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker. As for Josh, after a modest early success, he lost his mojo and has spent 10 years futzing around with a seven-hour-long opus so pretentious and meandering he can't even provide a coherent synopsis — a problem that becomes a running joke.
Enter Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a couple of Brooklyn hipsters a couple of decades younger than Josh and Cornelia. Jamie endears himself to Josh by attending a lecture the latter gives at the New School and confessing to being a huge fan, claiming to have tracked down a VHS copy of Josh's first and only release. Jamie, too, is a maker of documentaries — but, unlike Josh, he cranks out product effortlessly and is constantly coming up with catchy new ideas. The two couples quickly become inseparable.
The film's next hour starts out like a comic meditation on the difference between the generations. Jamie fawns over Josh, but it's the older man who adopts the younger's affectations — wearing wingtips without socks and rocking a trendy fedora. In one of the film's funniest scenes, Jamie plays "Eye of the Tiger" to pump Josh up before a pitch session with a hedge-fund guy (Ryan Serhant of Bravo's "Million Dollar Listing New York," who's hilarious). Naturally, Josh puts the financier in a coma trying to explain what his film's about.
In the third act, however, it becomes clear that the filmmaker has something heavier on his mind: artistic integrity, and addressing questions such as which corners are OK to cut in search of success and which aren't. Furthermore, Jamie turns out not to be what he seems. In a neat twist, he and Grodin's character are revealed to have more in common than it at first appeared — namely, a professional ruthlessness. Movie critic law prohibits me from saying more.
But I will say that few filmmakers understand creative frustration as well as Baumbach. He's close friends, after all, with Wes Anderson. Both are 45. One can imagine Baumbach might like to be receiving Oscar nominations at this point in his career, as Anderson has. To be regarded as an important artist. To reach the mainstream while not selling out. It may happen for him one of these days — but, until then, at least he has a sense of humor about his situation. And we have Josh looking at Jamie's face on the cover of the Hollywood Reporter and asking, "What's the opposite of 'The world is your oyster'?"