Baumbach proves himself to be a far more adept interrogator of the artistically frustrated, introspective male than someone like Woody Allen partly because he puts his thoughts into a more charismatic vessel than Woody Allen. Stiller can certainly play unlikable and dips several toes in those waters here, but it’s to his and Baumbach’s great credit that it never feels whiny or navel-gazing or infected with uninterrogated privilege. Josh has a stubborn idealism far more indicative of someone in Jamie’s age group than his own. His documentary is immediately recognizable as a complete failure, a project with zero appeal outside of a narrow academic circle. It’s gone on so long that he can’t synch up shots of his subject because the man has aged so much. Josh is susceptible to Jamie’s fawning admiration because he feels some of that himself in relation to the subject, a very old scholar of workers’ rights who Josh quixotically wants to bring to the masses. The character is a walking sunk-cost fallacy, but Stiller infuses him with enough passion towards his work that some part of the viewer still wants him to succeed.
In contrast, Jamie has internalized particular ethics of his generation and plenty from other ones, all of which have taught him exactly what he needs to do to succeed, a goal that for him is far more important than tying some obscure thread between the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and Turkish politics. He looks like a hipster’s hipster with his hats and his record collection and his indoor chicken, but he’s just as manipulative and conniving as any huckster pushing a truck packed with patent medicine. Josh buys what he’s selling, but Jamie barely has to sell it. That a film as interested in the interior lives of its characters as this one has anything approaching a twist is a considerable bonus. It turns a dialogue-heavy film into a caper that might not be a caper at all, and it comes complete with a big accusation straight out of a Poirot novel. Baumbach keeps this farcical thanks to Stiller’s comedic chops, but it’s also thrilling in a way that Baumbach’s films would not otherwise be described as.
For actors of Watts’ and Seyfried’s caliber, While We’re Young dishes out a little less. Darby is onscreen the least of the central quartet. Initial impressions imply that she’s going to be little more than a daffy klutz, but later developments give her more to do. Watts is the greater misallocation of resources, as she’s firmly in the shadow of Josh and Jamie. She gets stuck in an ayahuasca subplot that goes nowhere, and is otherwise little more than a sounding board for Josh. A late epiphany from Josh involves how much he’s taken her for granted, and the movie does as well.
While We’re Young is about a lot more than Josh’s midlife crisis antics or trite observations about the distance between a Gen X icon in Stiller and a Millenial one in Driver. This entertaining and watchable film takes appreciated wacks at parental culture and how deeply boring it can be for those on the outside of it, considers the value of intense but narrow hobbies or passions, and takes surprising plot turns and philosophical landings at the end. Baumbach’s dialogue, pitched at exactly the right wavelength of clever without being pretentious, communicates a lot about aging and self-perception and even filmmaking. He might’ve used some input from frequent collaborator Greta Gerwig, so that Watts’ character might feel like another lead instead of a third wheel, but this is one of his better works. B+