Life is Scary Fun

“While We’re Young” is the best from Baumbach in 10 years

What a drag it is getting old.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have been married for ages, and stopped trying to have children years ago—too many doctor-prescribed injections, too much heartbreak. When their best friends bring home their own bundle of joy, though, the questions start all over again and so do the justifications. "We don't need kids," they tell each other. "We're free to live our own lives."

Except, like everyone else, Josh and Cornelia have obligations. He's a documentary filmmaker who has spent 10 years on one seemingly unfinishable project. She produces documentaries, though not for Josh but rather her father, Leslie (Charles Grodin), a legend in the field and a man who does not see eye-to-eye with her husband.

After a lecture, Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who remind Josh of his own younger days, but they seem somehow even more free and less driven by success. Jamie, it turns out, is an aspiring filmmaker, too, and perhaps Josh's only fan. The couples start hanging out and Josh and Cordelia begin to feel more alive than they have in years.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach deals with this issue a lot. It's not so much getting old that concerns him but why his characters are where they are in their lives. His previous collaboration with Ben Stiller, 2010's so-so "Greenberg," centered on a man trying to figure out his next step in a life that had dried up. "The Squid and the Whale" was a semi-autobiographical look back at how his own childhood was shaped by his parents' divorce. In "While We're Young," it seems obvious, he is looking not just at how the field in which he plies his craft has changed over the years but also how externalities like technology and babies and arthritis change us as people. "If we were other people," Cornelia offers before being interrupted by her husband: "What if we are other people?"

Maybe being other people is Baumbach's point. You can make a case that each of the filmmakers in the movie—the aspiring Jamie, the disaffected Josh, the successful and reflective Leslie—represents how Baumbach sees himself through time, and that he's meeting each phase of his own maturation with resistance instead of an open mind. What can we learn from younger versions of ourselves, and what could a full life of experience teach us about where we are now?

Baumbach has also managed to give Stiller and Watts roles they play seven times out of ten and make them feel somehow fresh. Stiller really holds this together, ditching some of the higher-pitched frustration so common in previous films to make Josh both more lived in and realistic.

Driver (best known for HBO's "Girls") is a great foil for Josh, wide-eyed and bohemian at first but a lot more calculating and brazen as things unfold. The film Jamie is trying to make initially seems guided by serendipity but there's more to it than that, surprising and disappointing Josh, who can't believe he was suckered.

"While We're Young" is the best film that Baumbach has made in a while, probably since "The Squid and the Whale" 10 years ago. It's never hysterical but is often funny, and there are some definite dark passages he takes to reach his ultimate conclusion. And that's as it should be, because life is scary shit sometimes.

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