It may seem reductive, yet it's very tempting to see writer/director Noah Baumbach's latest film as part of a string of dominos that react to the ones surrounding it. Greenberg's burnt-out, sun-drenched Los Angeles bitterness begat the cool, breezy, New-York-freewheeling Frances Ha, which in turn begets the balancing act of While We're Young, simultaneously a reaction to and against both previous films.
A New York equivalent of Greenberg, dealing with the comeuppance of the intellectual bourgeoisie that is also contaminated by the carefree insouciance of a much younger generation, While We're Young is quite the mess, but a genuinely endearing one. It's a game of two halves whose first half looks backward to the past and stalls for time until the second part finally unlocks the game's speed and power.
At heart, it's yet another tale of people stuck in limbo, wondering where their lives went while they were looking elsewhere. In this case, these people are frustrated documentary director Josh and his wife Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), feeling stalled in their careers and isolated in their personal lives. A chance meeting leads Josh to befriend aspiring filmmaker Jamie and his wife Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a couple of cool Bushwick hipsters that seem to embody the youthfulness Josh and Cornelia pine for and whose mere presence seems to rejuvenate the older couple.
There's no free lunch, though. In trying to recapture that elusive excitement of what was before, Josh and Cornelia eventually come to the conclusion you really can't go home again; it can be such an incredibly seductive idea, especially for Josh, who's been struggling to finish a sprawling sophomore feature and is basically attempting to avoid his own fears, but it only leads to a more eye-opening, if personally disappointing, wake-up call. Mr. Stiller has apparently become the ideal "hero" for Mr. Baumbach; his wiry, stop-start edginess is perfect for Josh's hyperactive over-engineering, as indeed in Greenberg before him.
Whereas both that and Frances Ha were admittedly trained on a single character, While We're Young wants to be more of an ensemble piece, though it doesn't really work very well at such despite a rather interesting choice of casting (Mr. Driver returns from his supporting turn in Frances Ha in a much darker character, but both female characters are somewhat underscripted). The film harks back simultaneously to a halcyon idea of "NYC films" while postulating very clearly there's no time like the present and it's silly to hold on to wasted time.
It's that smart, thoughtful back and forth between past and present, classic and modern, change and stasis, that makes While We're Young much more interesting than its apparent mean-spirited single-mindedness would mean: it's not just Mr. Baumbach going through the motions, even if you'll be forgiven for thinking so.
WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Cast Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin
Director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach; cinematographer Sam Levy (colour); composer James Murphy; designer Adam Stockhausen; costumes Ann Roth; editor Jennifer Lame; producers Scott Rudin, Mr. Baumbach, Lila Yacoub and Eli Bush; production company IAC Films
screened June 2nd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening