'While We're Young': Toronto Review

Toronto International Film Festival
An erratic and neurotic mid-life comedy-drama.

Director Noah Baumbach reteams with Ben Stiller

Noah Baumbach deals with such issues as mid-life marital strife, generational envy, truth telling in documentaries and the feeling of life and career passing you by in the mostly engaging but only fitfully inspired serio-comedy While We’re Young. Given that he so winningly observed the twentysomethings who populated his wonderful last film, Frances Ha, it’s surprising that the writer-director has more trouble coming to terms with his own generation here, as represented by Ben Stiller’s neurotically frustrated New York documentary filmmaker and Naomi Watts’ betwixt and between wife. The appealing cast will attract a measure of major market specialized audience attention, but the film is neither sufficiently funny nor emotionally involving to engage a broader audience.

Stiller’s egotistical but insecure and constantly kvetching Josh Svebnick immediately comes across like a cousin to a Woody Allen character. Full of complaints and, at 44, suffering from arthritis and all too conscious of encroaching middle age, Josh still isn’t near finishing an epic political documentary he’s been working on for ten years (his celebrated intellectual father-in-law played by Charles Grodin tells him after a rough-cut screening  that it’s “a six-and-a-half-hour film that’s seven hours too long”).

Whereas most of their friends have had kids, Josh and his wife Cornelia are childless and likely to remain so. They’ve accepted that, but now they’re realizing that not only time but life is fleeting, which to a great extent explains why they, but Josh in particular, become enamored with a young couple in their mid-20s, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). 

Jamie professes huge admiration for Josh’s work and enthuses over just about anything the older guy says. And almost everything about the younger couple surprises and impresses Josh and Cornelia; here are sharp kids who prefer vinyl, use an electric typewriter, ride bikes around town, reject Facebook, married young and impulsively head off to explore secret parts of the city. Feeling reinvigorated, Josh wants to spend every hour possible with them.

Unfortunately, some of the film’s little side trips are hokey and would have been right at home in a mainstream Hollywood comedy: The couples go to a guru’s communal gathering where they spend most of their time wretching into buckets after drinking some unholy concoction, and Cornelia joins Darby at a hip-hop dance class. Furthermore, the female characters are not nearly as fleshed out as the men. Other than supposedly being a documentary producer, Cornelia seems dedicated to nothing professionally or intellectually and so comes off as a void other than in some emotional outbursts with her husband.  Presented as a creator of homemade ice creams, Darby is even more opaque. We know from his previous work that Baumbach is capable of writing much more interesting and full-conceived female characters than these, so the gender imbalance here is disappointing.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the men becomes more complicated. Forever deferential and laudatory, Jamie nonetheless embarks on a film project of his own that eventually impinges upon Josh’s work, notably regarding the involvement of Josh’s legendary filmmaker father-in-law and even the intellectual star of Josh’s film, a professor-historian amusingly played by musician Peter Yarrow.

This act of perceived betrayal sends Josh into a frenzy, culminating in a strange climactic showdown in which Josh confronts his one-time friend during a gala Lincoln Center celebration of his father-in-law’s career. But even though Josh is right in feeling used by the younger man, whose defense is along the modern lines that no one owns anything anymore, that everything belongs to everybody when it comes to art and intellectual property, Josh’s own failure to have done anything with his own work lends his rage a hollow feel.

Stiller does a frantic, mildly nebbish shtick throughout, while Driver pours on enthusiasm and charm. Seeing Grodin in an authoritative and sometimes caustic turn here makes one hope he starts appearing more frequently again in films.

From a stylistic point of view, While We’re Young is lively and buoyant, although not as resourceful or as beautiful as Frances Ha. The musical choices, from Bowie to Vivaldi, are smart and refined.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)

Production: IACF Films

Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz, Ryan Serhart, Dree Hemingway, Brady Corbet, Maria Dizzia, Peter Yarrow

Director: Noah Baumbach

Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach

Producers: Scott Rudin, Noah Baumbach, Lila Yacoub, Eli Bush

Director of photography: Sam Levy

Production designer: Adam Stockhausen

Costume designer: Ann Roth

Editor: Jennifer Lame

Music: James Murphy

97 minutes

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