Therein lies the problem with writer/director Noah Baumbach's latest, While We're Young: The usually original filmmaker instead chose to borrow the hackneyed comic contrivance of envy—this time between millennials and Gen Xers—and, as a result, the film lands with a thud.
Baumbach has been, and continues to be, a critic's darling. The Rotten Tomatoes "tomatometer" for While We're Young indicates 87 percent of critics have given the film top marks, though only 64 percent of audiences liked it—Baumbach is clearly getting a hall pass from critics for his latest effort. Kicking & Screaming (1995), The Squid & the Whale (2005), Greenberg (2010) and Frances Ha (2013) all garnered respectable art-house box office numbers but received rave reviews.
It's not difficult to trace Baumbach's personal arc with his artistic expression: Kicking & Screaming, a film about recent college graduates, came soon after Baumbach himself had graduated; The Squid & the Whale was about children of divorce, like Baumbach; Greenberg chronicled a displaced New Yorker in Los Angeles, again, like Baumbach; and Frances Ha was a love letter to Baumbach's girlfriend and the film's glorious star, Greta Gerwig.
Now we have While We're Young, which revolves around a 40-something couple played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts and, you guessed it, Baumbach is now in his mid-40s, all the more reason for him to have keen insight into the truths of aging. However, insight does not always equate to comedy—otherwise, we'd be laughing our fool heads off at National Public Radio. Baumbach's previous work is unrelentingly smart and ferociously cynical but, alas, this most recent work slides toward pretension.
Deep into the story of While We're Young, the childless Josh and Cornelia (Stiller and Watts) attempt to tell the classic bedtime story of "The Three Little Pigs" to a toddler they're babysitting. When Cornelia forgets how the story ends, the child begins to cry.
"What the fuck do we do?" asks a panicked Cornelia.
The scene is mildly amusing and, unfortunately, one of the comic highlights of a film that feels much longer than its 97-minute runtime.
The main conceit of While We're Young is how Josh and Cornelia envy 20-somethings Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) and the younger couple's balls-to-the-walls lifestyle. Because Jamie wears a fedora, Josh starts wearing one—he looks ridiculous. Cornelia joins Darby's hip-hop dance class—she also looks ridiculous. Unfortunately, this is stuff we've seen countless times in sitcoms. Baumbach has much greater success exploring the small details of life; here, his broad strokes are too sloppy.
I can't wait to see Noah Baumbach's next movie. The sooner I get this one out of my head, the better.