When you're young, to be old — even just the 44 kind of old — is unimaginable. Yet no one who has ever turned 44, or 54 or 74, can tell you how it happened. There's no single moment of passing to the other side of the looking glass; the only thing that's real is the bewilderment of realizing you've somehow squeezed through it.
That bewilderment is the guiding force of Noah Baumbach's fearless half-a-comedy While We're Young, an unsparing consideration of what makes the young different from the not-so-young. Baumbach's eighth feature isn't just sharp; it's serrated — its jokes, and there are lots of them, come at you with rows and rows of tiny teeth. But even if Baumbach, who also wrote the film, betrays annoyance with the sense of entitlement and soufflé-high overconfidence of millennials, in the end he comes down hardest on his beleaguered semihero, played by Ben Stiller. He's the one we most frequently laugh at, but also the one we feel the most for. Youth may be wasted on the young, but midlife ennui is unbecoming, and While We're Young refuses to give in to middle-aged self-pity.
Stiller plays a onetime documentary filmmaker who has hit his 40s and stalled out on the masterpiece he's been painstakingly crafting for years, a windy chronicle about society, power, and the postindustrial military complex (or something like that). We don't even have to see the stultifying clips from Josh's would-be magnum opus to know what the problem is: Even his name, Josh Shrebnick, is like a head-thwap from a Don Martin cartoon. Josh's wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), produces documentaries — just not his. Instead, she works with her father, lauded documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), whom Josh respects and resents in equal measure for understandable reasons: Breitbart is like the Maysleses, Pennebaker, and Wiseman rolled into one, and Josh knows he'll never be as good.
But he gets a jolt when he meets young aspiring filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his artisanal-ice-cream-maker wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), both about 20 years his junior, who fawn over him shamelessly. He's inspired by their energy, their casual generosity, their drive to "make stuff," and while Cornelia isn't sold at first, eventually she too falls prey to the couple's charms. "They're so respectful of us," Josh says to his wife, drunk on the nectar of the young couple's hero worship and also feeling resentful that his and Cornelia's closest friends (played by Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz) have a new infant who's the center of their world.
It turns out Jamie is a climber of the worst sort and, tragically for Josh, perhaps one with actual talent. We cotton to Jamie's selfish ambitions before Josh does, in the way Jamie and Darby mutter a distracted "thanks" when Josh reaches for the dinner check, in the way Jamie gushes over the single documentary that earned Josh some mild fame long ago, in the way, upon meeting the living legend Breitbart, Jamie clasps his hands in an ingratiating, phony-baloney pranamasana. (When I saw that, the ungodly, bitter laughter that escaped my lips was part elephant shriek, part furball-cough, briefly alarming those around me.)
The point isn't that all young people are ambitious, careerist creeps. But Jamie, whom Driver plays with a kind of maniacally shambling charisma, uses the wide-eyed faux-openness of his generation as a smokescreen for his ruthlessness. No wonder Josh, in his misguided, self-conscious earnestness, falls for it. Even Grodin's crotchety old Breitbart says of Josh, in one of the film's most piercing moments, "He wants what I have, but he's not merciless enough to get it." And by the time Josh has all the evidence he needs to expose his young friend's careerist duplicity, it's too late — and it seems no one really cares anyway. In the movie's pivotal scene, Josh stands up for everything he believes in, only to be met with a rousing "So what?" This is the painful centerpiece of Stiller's performance: For much of the movie, he struts around like a thundercloud with eyebrows attached, but in this instant, the stillness of his isolation folds around him like a set of invisible wings. It's such a bristly, complicated moment, and such a despairing one, that you wonder how he and Baumbach will reel the movie back from the brink.
They do it, of course, with a laugh, though nearly everything that's funny in While We're Young comes wrapped in barbed wire: For a lark, Cornelia decides to accompany her friends — all of whom have babies proudly strapped to their chests — to a baby-music hootenanny. She lasts only a few minutes before fleeing in horror, but shortly thereafter, in a moment that Watts plays so breezily it stings, we learn exactly why she and Josh are childless (not that it's any of our business). In another scene, Josh bristles when Jamie announces that he and a pal have started a band called Cookie O'Puss, named for a variation on a Carvel ice-cream cake advertised on TV in the '70s. For Jamie, the commercial is just some random laff-riot relic he found on YouTube, but for Josh, it's something more personal, a snippet of his junk-TV past that he feels has been plundered. Never mind the fact that the only thing worse than having junk TV as your legacy is having it secondhand. Jamie and Josh eventually square off bitterly on the issue of who "owns" the culture of the past, those who lived through it or those who latch onto it later for kicks. The argument escalates until Jamie fires a cheap shot: "That's old-man talk," he volleys, and Josh shoots back, "I am an old man!"
There, he's said it. And suddenly, the air seems clearer. Baumbach made his debut 20 years ago with Kicking and Screaming, about a group of recent college graduates who couldn't move away, either physically or spiritually, from the cozy, cloistered world they'd built for themselves over the past four years, a world where they could crown themselves imaginary kings. If the characters were aimless, the movie around them wasn't: Even its wistfulness had jagged corners. In the years between, Baumbach has made some fine pictures (Frances Ha) and some deadening, hermetic ones (Margot at the Wedding), but it's While We're Young that really fulfills the promise of his brash but fine-grained debut. These new characters, like fast-forward versions of the first ones he wrote, have woken up middle-aged without a clue how they got there. They all but say, "We knew we'd be different, but we didn't think we'd be this." While We're Young embraces the this, facing the bittersweet truth that it's all we've got. Better yet, it floats the possibility that the people we thought we'd be were overrated anyway.