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Review: While We’re Young

April 3, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

While We're Young Poster

The first thing we see in While We’re Young are excerpts from Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder.  “I’ve become so disturbed by younger people, they upset me so much that I’ve closed my doors,” a man says, and the response to his fear of youth comes just as matter of factly.  “Maybe you should open the door and let them in.”

And so begins the highly perceptive While We’re Young, the latest from acclaimed writer-director Noah Baumbach, and one of the most incisive depictions of the dividing line between generations that I have ever seen.  This is a bitingly humorous and also unexpectedly moving film, boasting a sharply written screenplay that is already among the absolute best of 2015.

Like any great story, the characters could be taken as metaphors of the larger themes at hand.  Josh (Ben Stiller) is a struggling documentary filmmaker and university professor in his forties, who has settled into a quiet life with his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts).  They are at odds with their friends who are all preoccupied with having kids, and struggling to accept that they are now middle aged.

But then they meet aspiring filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver), and his free spirited wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a hipster couple freewheeling through their twenties, who show up in one of Josh’s classes and inspire them to embrace spontaneity.  At first, the four artists find a lot to learn from each other, but their different ideologies and ulterior motives ultimately turn their friendship into rivalry, leading to a fascinating and unpredictable last act.

Ben Stiller and Adam Driver have perfect chemistry together, delivering the kind of comedic dance between two fundamentally different personalities that is both highly entertaining and engaging to watch.  Because the script plays into his innate ability to portray characters who walk an almost invisible line between charming and strange, Adam Driver is able to deliver his best and most well rounded performance yet.  Ben Stiller is one of those actors with an inherently likeable screen presence, even if there is a hint of misanthropy behind those eyes, and his character here taps into that perfectly.

There are a lot of layers here, and every member of the ensemble cast adds something to the film.  Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried provide excellent counterparts to these two male leads, nicely fleshing out their supporting characters and allowing us to see the same themes through a different lens.  Behind the camera, Noah Baumbach continues to prove himself as one of the most accurate voices of our generation, naturally expanding upon The Squid and the Whale‘s honest look at divorce, Greenberg‘s powerful portrait of middle aged regret, and Francis Ha‘s beautifully framed take on young adult malaise.

All of these themes come full circle in While We’re Young, perfectly illustrating the gap in generationally defined ideals, and the major differences that a few decades can make.  The film offers a complex look at millennials versus those who have already reached middle age, while also examining the balance between people with kids and those who don’t have any, and what drives them to become parents in the first place.  This is all pulled off so effortlessly, that audiences might not even realize how many different themes are evident until afterwards, leaving plenty of room for both thought and conversation.

There is a special moment partway through when we realize that the story is evolving and changing into something more, and it’s one of those moments that makes a film like this so exciting to watch.  Because of this, there are two conversations to be had about While We’re Young, one centred around the first half, and the other concerning the second.  To be clear, the film is entertaining right from the start, filled with sharp dialogue and astutely observed comedic situations, but it’s elevated even further by this fearlessness to become something deeper and darker halfway through.

Without giving too much away, While We’re Young becomes about exposing truth in a world and generation that is suddenly okay with fabrication.  The film builds up to this in such a seamless way, that it’s fascinating to observe how all of the pieces fall into place, and there is an ingenious quality to the way that every scene of the screenplay is allowed to grow even richer together.  The film could be considered a high concept comedy in this way, and it’s quite simply one of the best since David O. Russell’s great I Heart Huckabees over ten years ago.

I’ve never seen these ideas tackled in such a nuanced way before, presented with clear eyed honesty through what could have just been extremist satire.  Jamie is shown as stealing the pop culture references of the previous generation, and disingenuously passing them off as his own, which could be seen as a statement on hipster culture in general.  Josh is still holding on to these same pop culture references and not ready to pass them along, afraid to move past his own young adult years.  They are both living in is a weird mashup of retro culture that is so definitive, it never really went away.

I first saw While We’re Young at TIFF, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since then.  The film succeeds because there is emotional truth behind the laughs, showing the sizeable disconnect between older and younger sensibilities, and how each generation carves out their own perception of truth and meaning.  With a great cast at the top of their game, and a sharply insightful screenplay, While We’re Young is an inspired and very entertaining film, that has something genuine to say and offers a poignant testimony to finally allowing yourself to grow up.

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