The phrase “generation gap” was popularized in the late 1960s to illustrate the wide divide between the men and women who grew up with the Depression and World War II and their counter-cultural progeny, but as with many ideas the baby boomers think they invented, it’s been around for a long time. Writer-director Noah Baumbach‘s latest, “While We’re Young,” pointedly opens with a quotation from Ibsen’s 1892 play “The Master Builder,” in which a character reveals his horror over the ravenous nature of the next generation.
It’s a smart opening salvo, one which allows Baumbach to tell a the-youth-will-devour-us story — akin to Vietnam-era comedies like “Skidoo,” “Angel, Angel, Down We Go” or “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas” — without having to face criticism over being a Gen-Xer who both envies and fears those brash young Millennials nipping at his 45-year-old heels.
Documentary filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) find themselves in a mid-40s rut: Josh has spent the better part of a decade working on a six-hour film that even he admits is boring (although he tries to pass that off as an intentional strategy), and he resents the veneration for Cornelia’s successful father Leslie (Charles Grodin), who once considered Josh a protégé (and whose films Cornelia still produces).
She, meanwhile, has decided not to have children after a few miscarriages early in their marriage, but their childlessness has begun estranging them from baby-centered best pals (and new parents) Marina (Maria Dizzia, “Orange is the New Black”) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz, formerly of the Beastie Boys), to the point where Cornelia has to flee a mommy-and-me music class midway through before having a meltdown.
Enter Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who crash Josh’s continuing education course. Jamie’s a fan of Josh’s early work and an aspiring documentarian himself, while Darby runs a small artisinal ice cream concern. Baumbach shrewdly never uses the word “hipster” until the end of the movie, but Jamie and Darby live in Bensonhurst, keep a live chicken in their loft and have an enormous collection of vinyl LPs and VHS cassettes. Make of it what you will.
At first, Jamie’s flattery and openness to collaborate inspire Josh and Cornelia both, who begin hanging out with their new friends at “street beaches” and spiritual ceremonies involving powerful hallucinogens. But as Josh comes to realize he’s not as young as he thinks he is — when his doctor tells him he has arthritis, Josh can’t wrap his head around the idea of having the “standard” kind and not some special version for non-old people — he also begins to question Jamie’s sincerity as both a friend and as a non-fiction filmmaker.
The verbal wit and comic set-ups are smart and sprung from the zeitgeist, and while Baumbach clearly relates more to Josh and his iPad than to Jamie and his external quest for “authenticity,” his satirical brush scolds and forgives both generations (all three, if you include Leslie’s) equally. Jamie may bear the brunt of Baumbach’s judgment, but Josh and Cornelia suffer the most indignities, whether it’s accidentally showing up at a party to which they haven’t been invited or standing out as age-inappropriate in various social settings.
The cast uniformly cruises on the screenplay’s drily witty wavelength (Watts hasn’t been this funny since the under-loved “Movie 43”), and if there’s one element of the film that keeps it from the level of greatness Baumbach achieved with “Frances Ha,” it’s that Josh confronts Jamie at the end with a monologue that basically underscores everything that the movie has already been saying, connecting dots for an audience that has already done so. It’s a rare moment in which Baumbach feels like he has to explain himself.
Cinematographer Sam Levy (“Frances Ha,” “Wendy and Lucy”) gives us a cozy, lived-in New York City. The song choices (ranging from a music-box version of Bowie’s “Golden Years” that bookends the film to the possibly ironic-or-not ’80s hits favored by Jamie) are all spot-on, and this is definitely a film where making it about filmmakers feels like a story choice that’s meaningful and not just narcissistic.
Wisely, Baumbach isn’t invested in making himself the voice of a generation; he’s merely observing that generations exist and that the cycle keeps going and going. The best strategy for getting older, if Josh is any indication, is just not getting suckered into buying a fedora.