Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” is a truly odd movie- a character study combined with cinema’s most vicious, mean-spirited denunciation of the millennial generation yet, both yoked to an earnest defense of authenticity in documentary filmmaking. Oh, and significant supporting roles for members of both Peter, Paul and Mary and the Beastie Boys.
The film has its moments but overall, it’s somewhat of a mess, especially when it goes into loony-tunes land in the third act.
“While We’re Young” seems heavily influenced by Woody Allen, right down to the credits font, and specifically “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as just like Woody, the hero is an unhappy documentary filmmaker working on a commercially questionable passion project based on endless interviews with a dull, aging, leftist intellectual. Also present? A sort of nihilistic spirit, and an absence of virtually any characters who aren’t risible assholes.
That’s Josh (Ben Stiller), a Gen-X aged filmmaker, married to Naomi Watts, and they represent the only childless couple among their friends. They’re soon befriended by Millennial couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), as Josh first sees Jamie as a potential protege. But instead, he emerges as a 21st century analog to Alan Alda’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” villain. Also on hand are longtime Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz as Stiller’s new-dad friend, Peter Yarrow as his doc subject, and Charles Grodin as Watts’ father.
The film starts off as the makings of an interesting character study. The mechanics of adult friendships- especially along the kids/no kids divide- is a fascinating, under-explored subject, as is generational feuding among different ages of adults.
But “While We’re Young” falls victim to a few major pitfalls, the greatest of which is that it has a weirdly mean-spirited axe to grind with Millennials. The screenplay has a get-off-my-lawn vibe to it, about kids these days and their smartphones and texting. This is especially weird for a film starring Stiller, who both directed and starred in “Reality Bites,” what was meant to be a totemic film about Gen X. And guess what- everything that was said about Millennials now was said about Gen Xers in 1994. Everyone always hates the generation after them, and if smartphones and texting had been invented 20 years earlier, you know the young people of back then would have behaved much the same.
This whole attitude is bad enough early on, but by the third act it quickly curdles into moral revulsion, by implying (with little to back it up) that todays 20-somethings are unethical liars. It’s also sort of incongruous that Driver and Seyfried (who are 31 and 29, respectively) are cast as avatars of Millennialism.
The film’s other major agenda, in favor of authenticity in documentaries, is more admirable, although it ultimately amounts to let another fish-in-the-barrel shot at reality TV. But it’s totally afield from everything else the movie is about.
Baumbach has had a checkered career. He directed some great stuff early (especially “Kicking and Screaming” and the underrated “Mr. Jealousy,”) and then “The Squid and the Whale,” a movie that resonated deeply with people with divorced parents and less so for those without them. Then there was the odious “Margot at the Wedding,” although “Greenberg” (also starring Stiller) was an improvement and “Frances Ha” was his best film in years. “While We’re Young” has its moments, but it’s mean-spiritedness sinks it.