While We're Young, film review: Ben Stiller fights middle age with wry humour

(15) Noah Baumbach, 97 mins Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Driver
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The Independent Culture

"What is the opposite of the world is your oyster?" Josh (Ben Stiller) asks plaintively at one stage in Noah Baumbach's acerbic and beautifully observed new comedy-drama. Josh is a middle-aged New York documentary-maker with an arthritic knee and deteriorating eyesight. His career hasn't panned out in the way he had once hoped. He is "happily" married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), the daughter of legendary doc director Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin). Unlike their friends, Josh and Cornelia don't have kids, which is seemingly a source of great relief. They live the life of carefree New York artists. They can't help but notice, though, that time is slipping away from them.

Baumbach opens the film in portentous fashion with a quote from Henrik Ibsen's play The Master Builder about a terror of "younger people" knocking on the door. The irony here is that Josh and Cornelia are suspicious of younger people and yet still desperately want to see themselves as young. That is why they are so flattered by the attentions of a young couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried.) Jamie is a would-be filmmaker who turns up at one of Josh's lectures and pretends to be interested in what he is saying, even as the PowerPoint malfunctions ("that should be an image from Nanook of the North") and Josh loses his thread.

One of the pleasures of an intermittently very funny film is its sly and subtle approach toward the attrition between generations. Their different attitudes toward technology are revealing. Josh and Cornelia own every digital device imaginable and are slaves to social media. By contrast, Jamie and Darby live in their own mini retro world. The younger couple listen to vinyl LPs on record players and watch films on VHS tapes on ancient, square TVs. ("It's like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out but it looks so good the way they have it," Cornelia enthuses of their artful clutter.) Jamie claims to prefer personal connections to the artificial companionship of Facebook. Josh can't resist checking the Huffington Post every few moments. Jamie is strapping and athletic, an expert basketball player, while Josh always appears to be on the verge of a pratfall.

Still got it: Naomi Watts in 'While We're Young' (Nicole Rivelli)

There has been a creeping sourness in some of Baumbach's recent films – a sense that his characters don't like themselves and that he doesn't much care for them either. That was the case in both Margot at the Wedding (2007), with its neurotic, self-loathing protagonists, and in Greenberg (2010), which also starred Stiller. Thankfully, in While We're Young the barbed observations and despairing existential musings about the misery of middle-aged life are combined with compassion and humour.

Stiller's Josh seems initially every bit as obnoxious as the failed musician he played in Greenberg. He is still absurdly conceited, an "old man" wandering around town in his dainty little hat and even racing to an important rendezvous on his rollerblades. The six-and-a-half-hour political documentary that he has been labouring in vain to finish for a decade looks incredibly dreary. (As his father-in-law tells him, it feels "seven hours too long".) He doesn't fit in comfortably with the young crowd but despises the company of other married couples and their kids. He's selfish. He doesn't like sharing credit or collaborating with those closest to him. Nevertheless, as the plot twists multiply, Josh emerges as both the most principled and the most naive character in the movie. It is not his age that is holding him back. It's his idealism – which is another way of saying his lack of ruthlessness and common sense.

Josh is one of Stiller's finest performances, combining the arrogance and woebegotten goofiness he brings to his more mainstream comedies – for example, Meet the Parents or Zoolander – with a soulful, little-boy-lost quality. There is some slapstick here – Josh's sleeve catching fire at a dinner, Josh and Cornelia taking hallucinogens and then trying to vomit their way to higher consciousness at a shaman's seance – but these are combined with intimate moments during which the characters' yearning and desperation becomes apparent. Josh really does believe in documentary as a means of capturing truth. If you cheat or use short cuts, he argues, the work will lose its integrity. That is true in principle but explains why his career is going nowhere.

Young crowd: Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried (Icon Film Distribution)

Naomi Watts also brings both humour and pathos to her role as the fortysomething woman so energised by her new young friends that she enrols in a hip-hop dance class. You can't help but notice a chauvinism in the storytelling. Both the women characters here, Watts and Seyfried, are secondary. Their menfolk have the ambition to be great artists and they are there to support them.

Josh yearns to be admired and is flattered by the idea that the younger man at his door is his protégé. The problem is that he wants to be the younger man's friend as well as his mentor – and is ill equipped to be either. Jamie, meanwhile, has more than a hint of the scheming young actress out to usurp the status of her idol, Bette Davis, in All About Eve about him.

Baumbach isn't judgemental toward either of the two main characters. They're both behaving according to their own natures. They're like members of similar but distinct tribes who simply don't understand each other. There are too many years between them. The film doesn't seem especially pessimistic about their differences. It is a natural state of affairs that the young will plot against the older generation, which will in its turn fret about its decreasing vitality and relevance. This is a story that has been told many times before – and here it turns out to apply as much to New York hipsters as it does to princes and kings.