By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Because looking ahead leaves room for hope, while glancing back invites regret, being young trumps getting old just about any way you slice it.
That’s the playing field that writer-director Noah Baumbach finds himself on in his satirical comedy-drama, While We’re Young.
And while we don’t exit his latest feeling fully satisfied with the journey his characters are on, there is plenty of audience-friendly food for thought along the way.
A Manhattan couple in their forties, Josh and Cornelia, played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, meet a couple in their twenties, Darby and Jamie, Brooklyn retro-hipsters played by Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver.
Josh is a struggling documentarian who makes his living as a college professor, while Cornelia is his occasional producer. Jamie also makes documentaries, while Darby makes ice cream.
The younger couple initiate the friendship after attending one of Josh’s lectures.
As they get to know each other, the younger couple reminds the older couple, who begin to recapture their lost youth, of who they used to be and how they used to live -– before mortgage payments and health concerns and inevitable habituation got in the way, and hopes and dreams gave way to compromises and disappointments and downsized expectations.
Now, they’re nostalgic for the good old days. Okay, the better old days.
Josh and Cornelia are childless after several miscarriages, and Josh obviously struggles with his lack of success when compared with that of his father, played by Charles Grodin, who is celebrated as a legend in the documentary field.
Interestingly, it’s the older couple who embrace the trendy social-media and high-tech devices — like Facebook and smartphones and iPods and Netflix — usually championed by the younger couple’s contemporaries.
Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Frances Ha) either pays homage to (or cribs from) Woody Allen’s great film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, which the well cast and well acted While We’re Young –- with Stiller, who was excellent in Baumbach’s Greenberg, in fine form again playing the equivalent of the Woody Allen character in that film — mirrors in more than a few ways.
In using his middle-aged characters’ point of view as a means to critique -– fondly but unmistakably –- the millennial generation, Baumbach doesn’t flesh out his female characters as fully as he does his males, but his rapid-fire dialogue, expertly rat-a-tatted by Stiller and Watts, keeps the ball in spirited play even when the plot meanders.
And that it does, changing tone and direction in the late going as Stiller’s Josh awakens to a painful reality that he investigates and resolves far more effectively than he handles his own years-in-the-making documentary project.
But this shift makes us wonder if we might have missed something early on. Who knew this piece had a villain?
Still, we’ll age 3 stars out of 4 for While We’re Young, a witty and insightful, if somewhat elusive, comedy-drama from Noah Baumbach that gapes at the gigantic generation gap.