Cinematic Releases: While We're Young

Stiller and Watts star in While We're Young.

"Look how awkward and dumb we look."
Midlife crises within a middle aged couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), form the epicenter of Noah Baumbach’s observant and occasionally scathing dramedy While We’re Young.  Written, produced and directed by Baumbach, While We’re Young marks the frequent Wes Anderson collaborator’s latest dabbling in the mumblecore subgenre with far more accomplished eyes and ears than his contemporaries.  

Beginning with debatably the director’s greatest film, Greenberg, Baumbach formed a unique director-actor partnership with Ben Stiller who gives a career defining performance of an unbending character who would be otherwise insufferable were he not played by Stiller.  A bit cozier and friendlier than the far more difficult Greenberg, While We’re Young joins the latter film’s focus on adults in dire need of emotional growth and mutual inability to recognize their self-repression.  

As previously mentioned, Stiller and Baumbach make a great team and bring out the best in one another.  While neither quite hit it out of the park in this case, Stiller is splendid as the New York based documentary filmmaker turned film professor who develops an affinity for one of his pupils.  A testament to what a professional Stiller is at directing and screenwriting in addition to being a mainstream actor, his work with Baumbach seems to be his most genuine.  A good spot for an actor and comedian of his stature to be to be able to fluctuate between art house projects such as Baumbach’s and the latest Night at the Museum flick.  

Naomi Watts is always great even when the film isn’t and with Baumbach as a woman dogged by pressures of her peers aging into parenthood, she’s fantastic and a perfect counterpoint to Stiller.  Adam Driver, better known for Girls and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, makes a great hipster documentarian who proves to be quite the go getter.  In a surprise bit of veteran casting is Charles Grodin as Stiller’s documentarian father-in-law Leslie, an actor reaching his Peter Boyle phase who deserves far more work than he’s had in recent years. 

"No!! I will not hold hands with you!"
As with Baumbach’s other features, While We’re Young is primarily driven by dialogue beset with an eclectic pop soundtrack alongside an original synth score by LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy.  With a soft visual palette and relaxed pacing, Baumbach’s films have the appearance of light romantic comedy but the soul of frustration and heartache.  A key opening scene says best what the journey with what his characters will be like, as Stiller and Watts regard an infant with smiles.  The baby seems calm at first but when it starts to fuss, the couple shuts down not knowing how to deal with it.  We can all relate to that moment where we’ve become deer in headlights, but for Baumbach’s characters, it takes them far longer to face their fears.  

Closer to Woody Allen than Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach isn’t for all, as his protagonists’ problems can be so discomforting they would make Paul Thomas Anderson blush.  By the same token though, it’s that very distancing technique with regard to his emotionally immature characters that adds to the director’s appeal.  While We’re Young is admittedly more commercial and therefore nowhere near the artistic heights reached by Greenberg but pretty close with its own unique blend of surprises and rewards.  

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-Andrew Kotwicki