Noah Baumbach gets too cynical in ‘While We’re Young’

Watts and Stiller struggle to remain youthful.
Mike D'Angelo

Two and a half stars

While We're Young Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Rated R. Opens Friday.

The line between sardonic and sour can be a tricky one, and writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Frances Ha) doesn’t always navigate it successfully. While We’re Young, his latest effort, starts off on one side of the line and eventually topples heavily onto the other side, retroactively making the entire film feel unduly mean-spirited. That clearly wasn’t Baumbach’s intention—he takes steps clearly designed to avoid it—but unconscious resentment appears to have taken over at some point.

Too bad, because While We’re Young has a fantastic premise, potentially rich in insightful humor. Middle-aged and deliberately childless, married couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are just reaching the point in their lives where they’re starting to harbor deep regrets about their choices when they meet a couple in their 20s, Jamie (Adam Driver, from Girls) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). These two young hipsters (there’s no other word) embrace spontaneity, creativity and cultural artifacts from before they were born; their friendship energizes Josh and Cornelia, who valiantly struggle to keep up.

Baumbach mines some great jokes from his unusual take on the generation gap during the film’s first half; one sly running gag shows the older couple to be more wed to the latest tech devices than are Jamie and Darby, who (like good hipsters) are obsessed with all things analog. Both Josh and Jamie are documentary filmmakers, however—that’s how they meet, when Jamie approaches Josh as a fan—and While We’re Young eventually engineers a confrontation between the two that, despite Baumbach’s best efforts to make Josh somewhat pathetic and self-righteous, still winds up making the kids look a whole lot worse. In particular, there’s a plot twist regarding somebody’s motives that shoves the movie in an overly cynical direction, to the point where it feels more like the kind of film Neil LaBute used to make 10 or 15 years ago—stuff like In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things. That’s not a good fit for Baumbach, who’s at his best when any bitterness is accompanied by a heavy splash of wry.

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