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Stiller Getting Older

 97 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed byNoah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts
While We're Young

When do people become middle-aged? Not physically, or chronologically, but mentally… at what point do they finally realize their youth is behind them? 30, 40, 50, 60? That’s the question that Josh and Cornelia Srebnick (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) try to address in Noah Baumbach’s new comedy, While We’re Young, a movie that mirrors to a certain extent Stiller and Baumbach’s own careers.


Josh is a documentary filmmaker who made one acclaimed but obscure documentary years earlier and has been working on his current project for ten years. He’s an obsessive perfectionist who’s chosen an obscure subject with an interviewee who is both incredibly obtuse and incredibly boring. He’s only been able to keep the project going and keep his film editor around thanks to funding grants that have now dried up. To make matters worse, he lives in the shadow of his father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), perhaps the world’s greatest documentarian. To make matters still worse, childless Josh and Cornelia now feel like fifth wheels since their best friends Fletcher and Marina (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia) have just become parents and are focused on their new daughter.


Just when things seem their worst, Josh and Cornelia’s lives are revitalized when they meet a mid-20’s couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). They are auditing the class Josh teaches at a local college, and Jamie, a budding filmmaker himself, actually knows Josh and likes his films. The two couples hit it off immediately, and Josh and Cornelia feel rejuvenated in body and spirit. Josh goes bicycling with Jamie (even though he learns he has arthritis as a result), and Cornelia goes to hip hop dance classes with Darby. And both of them go on a New Age retreat that involves throwing up into a bucket.


Naturally, what goes up must come down; Josh and Cornelia find they can’t outrace Father Time. Ironically, what brings Josh down isn’t his body, but his conscience and ethics. He accompanies Jamie on a visit to one of the younger man’s Facebook acquaintances to help film Jamie’s own documentary and discovers that the man, an Afghan War vet, is now in a mental hospital. With Josh’s help, Jamie turns his documentary into a feature about the war’s effect on vets and even enlists Josh’s own interview subject, the obtuse professor, to comment (the professor is much more interesting to listen to in Jamie’s documentary than he was in Josh’s).


Josh feels bad enough that his “protégé” has eclipsed him, but he feels even worse when he learns that Jamie and Darby haven’t been honest with him. Jamie engineered his first meeting with Josh to get an introduction to Breitbart, and Jamie also staged his meeting with his documentary subject for dramatic effect. What makes things worse is that Jamie is a talented filmmaker, better than Josh, and that his stunts worked. Josh becomes sullen while Jamie basks in Breitbart’s acclaim.


There’s a good bit of humor in While We’re Young, but it’s more of the chuckling-at-witty-observations on life variety than the laugh-out-loud variety. At one point, Baumbach contrasts the daily activities of the older Josh and Cornelia, who seemingly spend every waking moment on their cell phones, laptops, or tablets, with those of the much younger Jamie and Darby, who make their own furniture, watch movies on VHS, and use typewriters instead of word processing programs. Baumbach also physically contrasts the lanky, easygoing Driver and the shorter, high strung Stiller, who form an odd Mutt and Jeff in their scenes together.


While We’re Young is more of an inquiry into aging than a comedy. Josh’s career certainly bears considerable resemblance to those of Stiller and writer/director Noah Baumbach. Both star and director have accomplished a lot in their careers but they’ve never really managed to break into the top echelon of cinematic creative talent, and neither has had a really big hit in years. So, it’s not too much of a stretch to see them putting a lot of themselves into this film.


Autobiographical or not, While We’re Young is Ben Stiller’s best work in years. His Walter Mitty was a disappointment, and, other than that, all he’s been doing the last few years is recycling past hits. In addition, the older he gets, the more cloying and annoying his onscreen persona often seems: the bad parts of Woody Allen without Allen’s disarming manner. In Young, however, Stiller is far more likable than usual because his anxiety is understandable and because he’s cast against Driver, who’s playing a far more amoral character. The humiliations Josh encounters in the film (including a great scene in which he tries to get funding from a hedge fund manager that Jamie finds) engender sympathy rather than a feeling that the humiliation was justified.


Almost by default, While We’re Young is Charles Grodin’s best work in years as well. He’s almost 80 and he hasn’t lost his sense of timing. In fact, he’s mellowed from playing Stiller-type roles (one can easily imagine Stiller playing Grodin’s role in Midnight Run today) to playing more smugly self-assured types. It’s a devilishly charming performance that might net him some notice from awards voters down the line.


The second half of While We’re Young winds up dragging a bit, and Noah Baumbach couldn’t really figure out a good ending to the film, so the last few scenes tend to ramble on (the rather juvenile upchucking scene could similarly have been edited down considerably) . However, most of the movie is quite insightful, and it touches on themes that everyone who’s middle aged, or worried about being middle aged, or wishing they again were middle aged can identify with. While We’re Young is a charming comedy for all ages.

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While We're Young (2014) on IMDb