It's too bad Judd Apatow has already taken the title "This Is 40" because that's the perfect description of Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young." The writer/director has previously explored midlife crisis, malaise and discontent in efforts like "Margot At The Wedding" and "Greenberg," but his latest revisits and expands on those themes in what may be his most accessible film since "The Squid And The Whale." But that wider appeal doesn't diminish the bite or insight of "While We're Young," a deliciously entertaining, funny and honest look at getting old, being young and the intersection of the two at crucial life junctures.
If being in your 20s is about the possibilities that lie ahead, then your 40s is defined by taking stock of your accomplishments thus far, and for Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), it feels as if they missed their moment. The former is a once acclaimed documentary filmmaker who has been working on his latest project, a epic tome "about America," for the past eight years, unable (or unwilling) to finish it, while earning a living teaching community college. Meanwhile, the latter works for her father (Charles Grodin), a famous documentarian himself, who inspired Josh's own career early on. While their lives are undoubtedly comfortable, they are also static, with their friends around them are moving into parenthood (including a couple played a winning Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia), something they've half-heartedly tried before, only for it to end in miscarriage and disappointment. So now, they put on a face of resolutely saying no to having children, even though at 43 years old, Cornelia's biological clock has run out anyway. But they get a breath of fresh air, and something else to focus on, when they become the unlikely friends of the much younger Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) after the pair drops by one of Josh's classes to gush about his previous work, which he's surprised anybody remembers or has seen.
Hip, driven, industrious and ambitious, Jamie is practically a hipster cliché. He's got a wall of vinyl records, he plays in a band called Cookie Puss, lives in a warehouse/loft space that only young people in New York seem to find, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He's interested in everything and is something of a pop culture scavenger, while also resistant to contemporary fads and seemingly curious to experience things as purely as possible. Meanwhile, Darby, his wife, is along for the ride, but also has her own creative outlet via a line of organic ice creams. They are representative of many creative people of that age, eager to try new things, just as ready gulp down hallucinogens with a shaman as they are to throw a street beach party. And for Josh and Cornelia, this youthful vigor shakes them out of the routine of their own lives.
The quartet soon begins hanging out on regular basis, and an exchange of exciting new activities for aged wisdom occurs between the couples, but when Jamie embarks on his own documentary project, things get a bit more complicated. Josh has never been one for collaboration, and even though Jamie is apparently his biggest fan, his humble request that his new, more experienced friend co-direct his movie is turned down. But Josh still feels compelled to help, if only to reciprocate the generosity he feels Jamie has shown him, so he agrees to lend his assistance and input for free. That decision will eventually test the group's relationships, and the irrevocable gap of artistic differences and ethical boundaries between the two couples—and two age groups—are brought out into the open.
"Fiction is about me, documentary is about you," Jean-Luc Godard once said, and it's a quote Josh brings up because, unlike the New Wave filmmaker, he believes that the genre can be personal too. It's something he encourages in his students, and it's what he believes is a key part of the process of discovery. Filmmaking for him is about "capturing the truth of experience," but what he soon sees in Jamie's work is an unacceptably fraudulent perversion of that approach. What is truth and what is fiction? What is autobiography and what is commentary? Those are key questions, but what Josh fails to understand is that for today's generation—raised on camera phones, instant access and the ability to immediately capture, shoot and edit—all four blend together. It's not about "capturing the truth of experience." Instead, as Josh learns, this generation is more concerned about the experience of capturing the truth. Or in other words, the journey is the destination.
Baumbach's film isn't an indictment of those in their 20s, or about contemporary filmmaking, and he has plenty to say about the folly of those in their 40s who believe they are owed something simply for being around longer. There is a ruthlessness in Jamie that is perhaps ugly, but has been no less effective in putting him on the road to success that Josh aspires towards, but refuses to embrace except on his own unique set of terms. Even Josh's father-in-law believes Josh has always lacked the killer instinct to get ahead. Again, perhaps it's generational divide that allows Jamie the permission to play fast and loose with people and friendships to move up the ladder, or maybe he's just an asshole. Baumbach leaves it for you to decide, but doesn't given any of his characters an easy out for their successes or failures. Nor does he argue that the creative template espoused by Josh leads to anything more honest or honorable as Jamie's trickier juggling act with facts and storytelling devices.
As usual, Baumbach coaxes great turns out of everyone to make his screenplay come to life. Working with the actor for a second time, it's easy to see why Stiller has returned to the director, as he's simply doing some of his best dramatic and comedic work in recent memory, and possibly of his career. Watts, who has hit a bit of a skid over her past few pictures (and is forgettable in "St. Vincent") shines with the opportunity to take on a well-rounded, multi-dimensional part. Driver confirms why he's the next big mega-star and makes it look ridiculously easy and charming, while unfortunately, Seyfriend gets the short end of the stick screenplay wise. Darby is constant in Jamie's shadow, and as a result, so too is the actress. But a special shout out to Dree Hemingway for her brief, but very funny turn, as she gets a lot across in body language and costumes, even if she doesn't have many lines.
While a truly original comedy, "While We're Young" is the rare one that also laces rich thematic elements with wonderfully drawn characters to create a picture that's as genuinely hilarious as it is thoughtful about how hopes, ambitions, dreams and ideals of personal and creative accomplishments that ebb and flow across decades. It's almost as if Baumbach took the guts out of "Greenberg" and "Frances Ha" and recooked them into an entirely different, equally fulfilling meal with "While We're Young," all while adding a variety of new textures to consider. Moreover, the film is one we suspect that only get more rewarding with subsequent viewings, as audiences' own aging, life experiences, disappointments and surprises will be reflected in these characters, who, like all of us, are forever chasing truth and experience. [A-]