Shortly after married, childless fortysomethings Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) abandon their friends for a younger, more artisanally inclined couple, While We’re Young offers a montage of how its characters occupy themselves when left to their own devices. Aspiring documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver) watches VHS cassettes and raps on one of his vintage typewriters, which are mounted like deer heads on a wall of his Harlem apartment. His girlfriend, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), reads a clothbound book. Josh and Cornelia, meanwhile, remain attached to their devices: He fiddles with his Apple TV as she dons massive headphones and cues up an episode of Radiolab. It’s a quick, clever sequence that outlines familiar generational clichés: Aging yuppies embrace isolationist, on-demand technology while young hipsters cultivate a fetish for the prior generation’s bygone habits and woebegone advances in consumer electronics. Such visual details, presented with minimal commentary, were a crucial part of the milieu of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. While We’re Young mines that probing mise-en-scène for explicit commentary, but the belabored screwball comedy that results lacks the verisimilitude and acute socioeconomic awareness of its predecessor.
The problems begin with the characters, who are sketchy elaborations of artsy New York types, largely detached from financial concerns. Josh is a cerebral documentary filmmaker, foraging through the weeds of 10 years of raw footage as he tries to complete the follow-up to his breakout debut. Hopelessly ill-defined by Baumbach’s script, Cornelia moonlights as a producer, but she’s most notably the daughter of Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a legendary documentarian. Baumbach introduces the couple as if they were rejects from the final cut of Friends with Kids, grimacing cartoonishly as their friends embrace mommy blogs and the broader cult of active city parents. (One father, played by Adam Horowitz, sports a tattoo of his child’s sonogram.) Josh and Cornelia rather eagerly ditch their social circle when Jamie and Darby sit in one of Josh’s film classes and then invite the couple out for dinner. Jamie wants to start a new film. Darby—another female character we never see at work—produces almond milk ice cream. The elder couple get swept up in the micro-adventures of their beaming, charismatic new friends, joining in on “street beach” parties and voyages through the subway tunnels.
Baumbach lobs jokes with hectic editing and a Sturgesian velocity, but much of this cross-generational comedy is frantic and wearisomely superficial, its sights set on the tropes of the age of Portlandia and Broad City: hipsters with fixies raising a chicken in their living room; white people attending hip-hop dance class; middle-aged men attempting to justify their use of Facebook to disinterested younger people; a random roommate walking by in an ironic T-shirt. The director is best when he’s slowly, mercilessly undermining the self-images of his characters, but While We’re Young speaks in a cultural shorthand that saps its leads of both idiosyncrasy and dignity. As Josh and Cornelia, Stiller and Watts are oddly listless, trapped by the film’s stale aggregation of cultural habits and rom-com clichés. They’re the constructs through which Baumbach engages in a rather earnest examination of a generation reluctant to accept the routines and stodgy values of middle age, but the film’s reliance on physical humiliation and bemused reaction shots is itself stuffy and retrograde.
While We’re Young is most consistently amusing when it addresses issues of cultural appropriation and throwback kitsch. Jamie plays Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” to pump Josh up before a meeting with a potential investor, and Josh quips, “I remember when this song was just bad.” When Josh, enamored with Jamie’s style, begins to sport a fedora, Baumbach tosses in a hilarious shot/reverse-shot exchange, where the brims of their hats dominate the frame. Eventually, the film’s charming young hipsters, expertly rendered both effervescent and vapid by Driver and Seyfried, come to seem morally rudderless schemers, particularly after Jamie co-opts one of Josh’s subjects for his upcoming documentary. (He also snatches his editor, and the goodwill of Josh’s father-in-law.)
Baumbach tips his cap to Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors in this subplot, and does some appropriating of his home, passing off footage from the Maysles’ Experiment on 114th Street as the work of his fictional Leslie Breitbart at a dinner honoring the character at Lincoln Center. The dinner, complete with a disruptive and disputed aria by Josh about ethics in documentary filmmaking, is a classically large genre finale set in the very specific world of New York film luminaries (Peter Bogdanovich makes a cameo). The disconnect here is pointed (Baumbach’s bid for commercial success culminates in a scene where Josh’s private neuroses become embarrassingly public in a room full of his heroes), but its success relies on a layered, inside-baseball meta-text that’s wildly out of step with While We’re Young’s frustratingly broad observational humor.