There’s a scene in Noah Baumbach’s bracing character study Greenberg where the eponymous middle-aged curmudgeon played by Ben Stiller finds himself in the middle of a young person’s party. He sits on the couch talking to energetic teens, is intimidated by their confidence, and concludes, “I’m freaked out by you kids.” That’s just one scene in the movie, the broad strokes with which the youngsters are drawn excusable as a concept to push Stiller’s character out of his comfort zone. Baumbach’s new low-key comedy While We’re Young essentially stretches Greenberg’s party scene to feature length, finding a contentedly neurotic fortyish married couple (Stiller and Naomi Watts) drawn into a relationship with easygoing hipsters (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) who alternately attract and repel them.
The film sets up an interesting dynamic, with Stiller and Watts feeling displaced by their generational cohort’s baby-having ways. Friends (like Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz) are disappearing into this different middle-aged demographic, so Stiller and Watts try to fit in with Driver and Seyfried’s crowd despite obvious confusion and discomfort over a lifestyle of twee handcrafted locavore retro-kitsch irony. The older couple still feels young, like they’re only pretending to be grown-ups. But confronting the alluring and confusing ways of the young folks forces them to choose between regressing in a return trip to extended adolescence or embracing the comforting steady grind of adulthood. They try out a new routine and see how it fits, a form of generation gap tourism.
A soft and comfortable film, the result lacks precision. Where’s the well-observed bitterness of Greenberg, or the sweet youthful energy of his previous film, the charming twentysomethings’ comedy Frances Ha? Baumbach has seen the age gap from both sides in better films, so it’s harder to accept the mushy generalizations and broad caricaturing at work here. It's still, in the typical Baumbach approach, full of characters who think they’re one clarifying conversation away from a better, more fulfilling life, and yet keep talking themselves back into corners of their own making. They leave each scene feeling worse than they were before. On some level it works. But here the lines are fuzzy more than sharp. Stiller and Watts make the most of their pleasant banter, able to slide easily into prickly married-life arguments. But Driver and Seyfried float through on a cloud of pixie dust as magical bewitching younger people, contrasts and sometimes foils, but never fully alive.
The young couple is a collection of stereotypes, a jumble of traits meant to make them specific and yet only serves to make them unknowable. He wants to be a documentarian, loves vinyl and VHS, hates social media, raises chickens, and encourages his partner’s burgeoning homemade ice cream business. You can tell on a surface level why that’d be exciting for a couple who otherwise spends their time avoiding pals’ children, chatting about arthritis, academia, and business meetings, and then going to bed early. But there’s no sense of who Stiller and Watts were as younger people, or what they’re trying to reclaim by hanging around these willowy strawmen who drag them to block parties and New Age shaman cleanses. Eventually, as the younger people prove more calculating than they first appear, the plot returns our middle-aged protagonists to the comfort of their generation, suspicious of young people all the more.
The final shots of the film confirm this fear of youth as we watch a baby expertly manipulate an iPhone, then cut back to Stiller and Watts pulling horrified faces. What is this world coming to? How can people of such different worlds coexist? While We’re Young’s not so sure they can, or should. The writing is full of prickly barbs, one part sublimated Borscht Belt and one part relaxed New Hollywood indie, the bright and sprightly Woody Allen-style New York City imagery hopping along bridging the gap. The cast (including a welcome, but small, role for the great Charles Grodin) spits the lines with great aplomb and winning chemistry. But Baumbach’s usual emotional specificity is stale, even strained, here. I saw where he was going, poking fun at youthful affectations and aging insecurities alike, but it never rose past the level of thinly imagined sketch.