Once more unto the Phoenix, to see Noah Baumbach's new film While We're Young. Baumbach is the kind of director whose name I vaguely know, and whose films I have have heard, but I wouldn't have been able to put those two bits of information together, and I was still slightly surprised to learn I've actually seen one of his other movies (Frances Ha from 2013 – and, of course, anyone who gets on so well with Greta Gerwig is clearly a good egg). Said movie struck me as a bit Woody Allen-esque in its subject and setting, and the same goes for While We're Young, which is a comedy-drama about well-off metropolitan types.
Well, probably more of a full-on comedy, I suppose. Regular readers will know my aversion to most mainstream American comedies, on the grounds that they are – erm, how can I put this? – not funny, but the fact that While We're Young opens with an extended quote from Ibsen should tip the attentive viewer off that this is not a typical mainstream American comedy.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a happily-married couple in their early forties (as the theme of acting your own age is central to the movie, I feel obliged to mention that Stiller is not) who believe themselves to be happy with their lifestyle. Both are film-makers, one way or another, and they have accepted they're not going to have children. This puts them rather at odds with most of their set, whose lives essential revolve around grappling with infants of various sizes.
The plot proper gets underway when they encounter another couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Jamie and Darby are twenty years their junior and Josh and Cornelia find themselves rather captivated by the passion for life that the young people have – the fact that Jamie is a fan of Joshua's back catalogue may have something to do with it, as well.
But is everything quite as it seems? Could it be that Josh and Cornelia have simply embarked on a futile attempt to cling onto the vestiges of their own youth? And is Jamie's interest in Josh quite as straightforward as it appears? It soon becomes apparent that the generation gap is still in existence, and before too long someone's going to come a cropper falling into it.
Fans of the bodily-fluids-and-profanity school of humour may not find much to attract them here, but While We're Young made me laugh a lot, particularly in its first half. There are few more reliable sources of comedy than people failing to act in an age-appropriate way and the sight of Ben Stiller attempting to bond with hipsters and Naomi Watts tackling a hip-hop dance class provides many opportunities for proper laughs. The film has a nice line in sharp, deadpan dialogue, too: 'You've made a six-and-a-half-hour film that feels seven hours too long,' someone tells Josh of his latest opus, while a scene in which he is diagnosed with arthritis by his doctor is also extremely droll: 'Arthritis arthritis?' he yelps, distraught. 'I usually just say it the once,' replies the physician, unflappably.
Above all, this part of the film is a smart and insightful comedy of manners and social embarrassment with some great set pieces and moments of real perceptiveness: there's a nice sequence quietly drawing attention to the way that middle-aged people are more likely to adopt new technology than the young. And it does address what seems to me to be a problem for the childless thirty- and fortysomething: what exactly do you do with your life to give it value, without either seeming self-indulgent or looking like you're in a state of arrested development? I've seen plenty of people in this situation who wind up taking refuge in the dreaded Ironic Sensibility.
However, there's not a great deal of scope for plot here, which is probably why the second half of the film concerns itself with knottier and less universal issues – namely, the values of the different generations and whether a lack of commonality here is a serious problem, or only to be expected (or perhaps both). Baumbach's line of approach on this is the question of authenticity in documentary film-making, which has been a live issue over the last few years in the wake of films like Catfish and Searching For Sugar Man, which were accused of either manipulating the truth or being out-and-out hoaxes. There's what looks very like a gloves-off swipe at Catfish in particular here, but Baumbach's attempt to tie this in to the theme of generational difference feels just a little laboured. It's true that many younger people nowadays interact with culture in a wholly different way to how things were in the pre-digital age, but then so do quite a few older ones as well.
It's also perhaps a little disappointing that the second half of the film is centred so firmly on Joshua, while the first part was told at least partly from Cornelia's point of view. This is not because of any weakness in Ben Stiller's performance – he is as accomplished an actor as ever – but simply because it turns the film into a piece about a middle-aged white guy possibly heading for a mid-life crisis, and we are not short of iterations of that story. It makes the film a little more conventional than it perhaps needed to be. (When it comes to the younger couple, the film gives much more prominence to Adam Driver, too: apart from a couple of scenes, Amanda Seyfried really gets quite little to do.)
The same is true of how the story resolves itself. To be fair, the film is largely built around the premise that a refusal to admit you are ageing is going to result in you looking increasingly foolish as time goes by, but this isn't quite the same thing as the whole-hearted endorsement of thorough-going normalcy that the end of the movie actually feels like. Then again, this is ultimately still a mainstream film on some level, so I suppose one shouldn't be too surprised. While We’re Young is at least a mainstream film with some intelligence and wit about it, and one which made me laugh a lot despite my ultimate misgivings about parts of it. Worth seeing, especially if your fortieth birthday is not too distant a memory.