The writer-director Noah Baumbach has a gimlet satirical eye for the foibles and follies of the upper-middle class, which he deploys to brilliant and hilarious effect in his new movie, While We’re Young. A childless husband and wife in their 40s, played with beautiful understatement by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, are content with each other but seem to be in a state of paralysis when it comes to moving forward in their careers and lives. Josh and Cornelia find themselves entranced by a boundlessly energetic twentysomething couple, Jamie (the amazing Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who possess the zest for living they feel they have lost—and who inexplicably want to be their best friends.
Josh and Cornelia neglect their age-appropriate besties, newly minted parents who keep saying “you guys need one of these” even though they know that, years earlier, Cornelia had undergone fertility treatments and two miscarriages before giving up in despair. Cornelia is even forced by a mommy friend to attend a music class for babies in which a four-person singing group performs drippy pseudo-rock songs while the children cry and the parents talk and pay no attention. The utter exactitude of this scene is a wonder, and is of a piece with the precision with which Baumbach aims his comic missiles at target-rich Brooklyn and then lets fly.
It’s no wonder Josh and Cornelia prefer to hang around with Jamie and Darby, who are not only respectful and desirous of mentorship but who remind them what it was like to be hungry for cultural experiences of any and all sorts. Jamie and Darby’s taste for artisanal pleasures involves not only food but also the use of entertainment delivery devices, such as VCRs and turntables, long since discarded by their iPhone-obsessed elders. Jamie, in particular, is a hero-worshipper of not-so-old culture and bikes around to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger,” the dreadful but catchy theme of Rocky III from 1982. Stiller finds himself enjoying it as well, until he stops and muses, “I remember when this song was just bad.”
Josh and Cornelia ditch their older friends to spend a weekend at a spiritual retreat with Jamie and Darby where the assembled seekers drink a brew called ayahuasca, start hallucinating, and reveal seemingly deep truths under the guidance of a Vespa-riding guru as they all upchuck into buckets.
This is all just great stuff, as is Baumbach’s merciless portrait of Josh as a documentary filmmaker lost in the thickets of his Chomskyesque urge to reveal the inner workings of the “power elite.” He has spent 10 years trying to finish a film centering on the ideas of a leftist sociologist at Columbia (played, I was startled to realize, by an amusing and aged Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary). He’s devastated when his father-in-law, the great documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), informs him that he’s made a six-hour film that’s seven hours too long.
Baumbach’s work here evokes the great marital comedies of Paul Mazursky, whose Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Blume in Love (1973), and An Unmarried Woman (1978) captured both the unsettling and the amusing aspects of the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s like lightning in a bottle. Alas, like Mazursky, Baumbach is so good at rendering his characters in exquisite comic detail he doesn’t know what to do with them once he’s completed their portraits. Since While We’re Young needs some kind of plot to resolve, Baumbach grafts one onto the last 30 minutes. It’s confusing and not all that credible, and it takes the movie on a tangent about the ethics of documentary filmmaking that is only worthwhile because it shows off the 70-year-old Grodin’s still-astounding comic timing.
Josh’s self-destructive self-seriousness calls to mind Baumbach’s autobiographical masterpiece, The Squid and the Whale (2005), in which a teenage boy must grapple with the realization that the novelist father he worships is a pretentious loser whose severely critical worldview is simply a cover for his own failures. Josh is a better man; like Mazursky’s protagonists, he means well, even when he stumbles. The Squid and the Whale is a near-tragedy, and it is flawless. While We’re Young is a farce—a flawed farce, yes, but on the whole, a wonderful one.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.