This is fortysomething...
For the first time in my life,” says middle-aged documentary-maker Josh Srebnik (Ben Stiller), “I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a child imitating an adult.” The latest mordant satire from writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid And The Whale, Frances Ha) explores what it means to grow up – and even more, what it means not to want to grow up.
Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) feel everything has stalled; he’s been stuck for years on a verbose and ever-baggier movie project, their friends are nagging them to start a family and they never, as Cornelia complains, go anywhere or do anything. Into their lives come twentysomething couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) – bubbling with enthusiasm, painfully hipster, their loft apartment packed with retro artefacts: LPs, VHS tapes, even a manual typewriter.
Adam also aspires to make docs, and expresses huge admiration for Josh’s early work. Josh is enchanted – “They’re so in the moment,” he burbles – and soon the older couple are being enticed to ‘street beach parties’, hip-hop dance classes and guru-led ayahuasca sessions where they gulp sludgy Peruvian hallucinogens and puke into brass pots. Josh even volunteers to help his new friend with his movie. But Jamie, it transpires, has his own agenda…
This is Stiller’s second gig for Baumbach. He took the title role in 2010’s Greenberg, which even includes a scene that anticipates While We’re Young: to his discomfort, the 40-ish Greenberg finds himself by some way the oldest guest at a drug-addled LA house party. The present movie takes that scene and plays ingenious variations on it, deriving edgy comedy from Josh’s attempts to fathom the younger generation’s mindset.
In one of the most acerbic episodes Josh, seeking backing for his flailing project, tries to expound his concept to a smugly philistine young suit credited only as ‘Hedge Fund Dave’. Baumbach touches on a bunch of other topics (Is parenthood a form of selfishness? Can documentaries ever be ‘objective’?) but never clutters his story.
Stiller’s character conveys the panic of someone finding himself ambushed by middle age, while Driver channels a younger, sneakier Keanu Reeves. Telling support, too, from Charles Grodin as Josh’s father-in-law, a feted doc-maker of the old school. Watts and Seyfried, by comparison, are marginalised, and there’s an over-pat coda. But this is sharp filmmaking, treating serious themes with a beguiling lightness.