Review: Life’s amusing little trip-ups ‘While We’re Young’ and ever after

Ben Stiller, left, and Naomi Watts in "While We're Young."
(Jon Pack / A24)
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Sharp, funny and dead-on accurate about the way we live now, “While We’re Young” is not a film about eternal youth but, rather, about coming to terms with growing older. This delicious satire about aging hipsters and their discontents is everything we’ve come to expect from the best of Noah Baumbach, as well as several things more.

Like “The Squid and the Whale,” “Francis Ha” and his “Kicking and Screaming” debut, “While We’re Young” features Baumbach’s unblinking emotional honesty as well as his impeccable ear for contemporary dialogue.

This time, however, working with an impressive acting quartet (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried), Baumbach has given us something thoroughly amusing, a film he’s described as “in the tradition of the adult comedies the studios used to make when I was growing up, like those that Jim Brooks or Mike Nichols or Sydney Pollack or Woody Allen made in the ‘80s.” Those were the days.

But, because this is Baumbach, inevitably mixed with the geniality in this tale of two couples, what they want from life and from each other, are more potent questions of values, of what it means to be an adult, of the drive for success and what we’re willing (or not willing) to do to achieve it. And did I mention that it was funny?


Set in that epicenter of contemporary cool that is the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, “While We’re Young” starts with Josh and Cornelia (Stiller and Watts), the kind of couple who use the word “hermeneutics” in casual conversation. They’re introduced holding a newborn infant that it soon becomes apparent is not their own.

Josh is a 44-year-old documentary filmmaker who’s been mired for 10 years on a 6 1/2-hour examination of “how power works in America,” while Cornelia occasionally collaborates with her father, the legendary documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin).

The baby belongs to new parents and Josh and Cornelia’s erstwhile best friends Fletcher (Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia). Completely besotted with paternity (Fletcher has turned the baby’s sonogram into a tattoo), they strenuously urge it on their friends.

But after some unsuccessful attempts in that direction, Josh and Cornelia are now content with a childless but comfortable life characterized by dining from a rotating list of takeout menus. Or so they think until the twentysomethings Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried) come into their lives.


Tall, unhurried and easygoing, Jamie makes the initial connection when he and Darby show up at a lecture by Josh and express a passion for his obscure first film. But what really attracts the director (and Cornelia as well, after an unfortunate Mommy and Me experience with Marina) is the couple’s air of casual yet completely up-to-date hipness.

How could you not love young people who collect vinyl records, make their own artisanal ice cream and adventurously explore abandoned subway tunnels. Best of all, Jamie and Darby, the souls of generosity, seem to genuinely like and appreciate their new friends and, worried without realizing it about growing old and square, Josh and Cornelia find themselves entranced.

“I really admire how you guys are in the moment,” Josh enthuses, marveling that this couple has come into their lives at a time when “the only two feelings I had left were wistful and disdainful.”

But as Josh starts to wear a fedora just like Jamie (who takes to calling him Joshie) and the couples begin to share hipster experiences like using the Peruvian drug ayahuasca to “vomit up demons” with the help of a shaman, their old friends like Fletcher and Marina start to feel left out and worry about the new turn their friends’ lives have taken. Do they have a point, or are they just being jealous?


And when it turns out that Jamie has a fledgling interest in documentary film himself, this complication seems to be a sign that this friendship was meant to be. Never mind that there are other signs, subtle reminders like recurring physical ailments, that Josh, for one, is not as young as he would like to believe. We as audience members may be worried, but we also feel reluctant to be spoilsports. Why rain on this parade?

One of the lasting pleasures of watching “While We’re Young’s” increasing complex story play out is that, like all top-drawer satirists, Baumbach is an equal opportunity impaler, subtly mocking the pretensions and blind spots of everyone in sight. It’s hard to avoid the realization that at different times in our lives we may have been any of these characters, and that is not always a comforting thought.

Twitter: @KennethTuran



‘While We’re Young’

MPAA rating: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles