“I’ve become so disturbed by younger people. They upset me so much that I’ve closed my doors” – Henrik Ibsen from “The Master Builder”
Now 44, childless, arthritic, and stuck in career limbo, Josh Svebnick (Ben Stiller, “The Watch”) has the good sense to realize that life is passing him by. Though Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts, “St. Vincent”) are okay with not having children (after several miscarriages), they feel disconnected from their friends who have kids. Set in Brooklyn, New York, While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach’s (“Frances Ha”) latest bittersweet comedy is less abrasive than his previous films, but far from being a tribute to the human condition. Though not as angry and unpleasant as Roger Greenberg in Baumbach’s 2010 film “Greenberg,” Ben Stiller’s Josh is hardly the picture of aliveness.
His self-esteem, shaky to begin with, takes a further hit when his filmmaker father-in-law, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin, “The Humbling”), criticizes a six-and-a-half-hour documentary that he has been trying to finish for ten years. Breitbart tells him that it’s “a six-and-a-half-hour film that’s seven hours too long,” leaving Josh to complain that the only emotions he has left are “wistful and disdainful.” Josh and Cornelia, however, see in Jamie Massy (Adam Driver, “Tracks”) and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried, “Les Misérables“), a young couple that embodies the youthful energy that eludes them.
Josh’s relationship with Jamie begins promisingly. Feeling flattered by Jamie labeling everything he says as “beautiful,” Josh agrees to help him with the documentary he is making, a decision he comes to rue. Jamie seems to fit Baumbach’s picture of what “hipsterism” should look like. He uses a manual typewriter, collects vinyl records, rides his bike all over the city, disdains technology and social media, and talks in hipster lingo. To feel like one of the in-crowd, Josh wears a hat and rides a bike, while Cornelia does her part with dancing and exercising to rap music.
The hipster thing goes overboard, however, when Josh and Cornelia agree to take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony led by an alleged shaman. Baumbach’s view of these proceedings seems to be that vomiting is the most important part of the process. Needless to say, there is no hint as to what the experience may really be like beyond the media-driven “Me generation” stereotypes. Josh’s partnership with Jamie soon begins to show strains, when Josh learns that Jamie used his film subjects — father-in-law Breitbart and History Professor Ira Mandelstam (Peter Yarrow) for his own personal film project. Josh views this, not as simple ambition or opportunism but as an example of the moral bankruptcy of today’s youth.
At a Lincoln Center dinner honoring Breitbart, the film brings up the issue of how documentaries have manipulated the truth to enhance their entertainment value, but it goes off on a tangent that ultimately conveys contradictory messages and a contrived ending. Without doubt, While We’re Young is a very entertaining film. As in the typical Baumbach experience, there is an abundance of irritating characters, the requisite number of clever one-liners (some even funny), snippets of redundant baroque music, and extensive use of foul language.
Unfortunately, however, this time it does not add up to an experience that feels real. While we all deal with the loss of our youth differently, the film’s facile conflict between middle-age and youth is overly calculated and is not illuminated by the suggestion that energy and enthusiasm are a function of age rather than of taking responsibility for our life and using our power to transform it — at any moment in time.