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Toronto Review: ‘While We’re Young’ is Ben Stiller’s Best Role in Years

Toronto Review: 'While We're Young' is Ben Stiller's Best Role in Years

Noah Baumbach has never been a sentimental filmmaker, but “While We’re Young” certainly sheds a tear for the travails of getting older. Like the writer-director’s “Greenberg,” the new movie features Ben Stiller as a neurotic fortysomething worried about his direction in life. But whereas his “Greenberg” character was a total mess, the married documentarian in “While We’re Young” stands on firmer ground that he wants to deny himself.

The closest thing to a mainstream comedy in Baumbach’s career, “While We’re Young” chronicles the process of making peace with a familiar routine, both through the character’s experiences and the effortlessly charming movie itself.

The Baby Cult

Opening with a quote from Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” about fearing the ambitions of young adults, “While We’re Young” doesn’t take long to outline its main character’s conundrum. As the once-respected documentarian Josh Srebnick, Stiller has been stuck in a loop trying to finish an impermeable six-hour essay film for years, while his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) supports his ambition. The couple friends in their lives have all settled into family life, a decision the pair rejected for themselves long ago, when Cornelia failed to get pregnant. Their closest pals, a couple played by Maria Dizzia and the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, barrel down on them to join “the baby cult” with a credibly judgement tone, which only strengthens Josh and Cornelia’s resolve.

Baumbach’s penchant for rapid-fire dialogue that’s funny in spite of its serious connotations comes into play when Cornelia asserts, “We have the freedom. What we do with it is not important.”

In denial about their insecurities, they discover the thrill of a new opportunity when Josh befriends the 25-year-old Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring filmmaker who attends one of Josh’s lectures and shares his enthusiasm for the older man’s work. Together with Jamie’s equally young and idealistic wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), the couple join Josh and Cornelia for dinner, impressing them with their youthful energy. Before long, the quartet is giddily wandering subway tunnels and outdoor parties as if the age gap were a non-issue.

The ensuing friendship between the couples initially leads Josh and Cornelia to experience a newfound lust for fresh experiences, though naturally the ordeal backfires when Josh begins to resent the ambitions of his young admirer. In Baumbach’s movies, the gap between good intentions and self-involvement never gets too wide.

Baumbach Goes Big

Though it showcases a filmmaker attempting to make great work and getting lost in his ideas, that’s hardly the case here. “While We’re Young” is a clear-eyed satire of intergenerational tension that derives much of its comedy from a series of moments in which its mid-forties couple attempt to mesh with a younger crowder. The contrast between their excitement over youth culture and the consternation of their older friends provides a number of hilarious asides. (“You guys wanna hit up a street beach?” Josh asks his contemporary, who dryly responds, “I don’t know what that is.”)

It’s fascinating to watch Baumbach’s themes of egotism and indignation shift into a broader, notably commercial form of storytelling. Ironically, though it ranks as his most accessible movie to date, “While We’re Young” is ostensibly about the challenge of seeking creative satisfaction that defies expectations. Josh’s struggles with his unfinished movie, an abstract treatise on war, history and the global economy — “it’s really about America,” he says more than once — cleverly skewers attempts at overambitious artistic statements. As Josh’s successful documentarian father-in-law, Charles Grodin lands a few nice moments where he puts Josh in his place.

But while “While We’re Young” portrays a filmmaker’s attempt to make great work and get lost in his ideas, that’s certainly not the case here. Even as “While We’re Young” never fully satisfies as a complete story and arrives at a tidy conclusion with irksome implications, it’s never dumbed-down. Baumbach excels at portraying the perception that no matter how far you come, somebody else seems to be able to do the same thing better.

So it goes with Driver’s character, a cunning young schemer whose hip act catches Josh off-guard. Driver is ideally cast to play a fast-talking social climber whose own sensationalist filmmaking project (featuring a war veteran played by Brady Corbet) provides a telling juxtaposition with Josh’s misconceived effort.

Stiller on a Roll

Mainly the movie offers Stiller his best role in years, giving him room to play around with a wide-eyed, paranoid temperament. An early scene in which the older couple join their new friends for a misconceived New Age-y drug trip lets the actor show off his penchant for being silly and deeply human at the same time, as does another standout bit where he meets with a potential financier half his age and struggles for attention.

The story is threaded together with James Murphy’s groovy score and the urban scenery. The result is a jovial New York movie in tune with Baumbach’s sentiments even as it broadens their scope. Explaining his fears of being “a child imitating an adult,” Josh winds up stuck somewhere in between those two extremes.

Eventually, “While We’re Young” veers toward a plot twist that pushes the material further than it needs to go to make its points. The final confrontation, staged at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with several familiar New Yorkers making cheeky cameos, ventures a little too far into meta territory for its own good. Nevertheless, Stiller manages to land some lively moments in the ensuing physical comedy. Even when its exaggerated ingredients go too far, “While We’re Young” remains a crowd-pleaser.

More than that, it engages in a provocative dialog with Baumbach’s previous film, “Frances Ha,” which magnified the travails of being young and directionless. “While We’re Young” flips the equation. As credits role over a grimy Brooklyn street and anonymous millennials wander through the frame, Baumbach seems to be making peace an unending cycle and allowing his movies to open up. “While We’re Young” is, in fact, a perceptive ode to getting old.

Grade: B+

“While We’re Young” premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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