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Ben Stiller and Naomi Watt star in While We’re Young, a movie about generational envy, artistic debts, cultural name-dropping and characters with puzzling sources of income.

Jon Pack/A24

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Noah Baumbach
Directed by
Noah Baumbach
Starring
Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English

If you've been wishing you could see a good Woody Allen comedy again, you should check out Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, which sees the 45-year-old director moving in on Allen's territory – the Manhattan comedy of manners. It's a movie about generational envy, artistic debts, cultural name-dropping, restaurant dinners, funky apartments and characters with puzzling sources of income.

Unlike Allen, though, Baumbach rehearses his actors, and the dialogue flow is snappy in a series of glancingly witty riffs on authenticity and generational hipness. It's an easy, familiar, smart and not-too-demanding social comedy.

The central story follows a autumn-spring bromance between Josh (Ben Stiller), a 44-year-old New York documentary filmmaker who has been working on a high-minded film about "power in America" for a decade, and Jamie, a 20-something acolyte (Adam Driver). One day, Josh is teaching a continuing-education course when he's visited by Jamie, a rakishly charismatic young hipster, and his doe-eyed wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who praise him and declare their interest in hanging out. Who could resist?

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While We're Young is more commercial and less innovative (or whimsically self-indulgent, depending on your tastes) than Baumbach's last feature film, 2012's Frances Ha, though it shares some common ground. Frances Ha was a collaboration between Baumbach and his then-girlfriend, actress Greta Gerwig, but both films focus on the beguiling, frustrating ways of adults who are reluctant to grow up. The theme goes back to Baumbach's 1995 debut film, Kicking and Screaming: While you may wince at the stereotypes of "entitled" millennials and dissatisfied Gen-Xers, the stereotypes serve well enough for topical comic grist.

The bromance is territory Judd Apatow has worked extensively, and it's somewhat disappointing that Baumback, who usually does better with female characters, doesn't do much more than make them "plus ones" here, frustrated sidekicks on the edge of the spotlight. As Josh's wife Cornelia, Naomi Watts gets the slightly better-developed role; she's the daughter of Josh's former mentor (Charles Grodin) who helps her dad and seems to be the main marital breadwinner, though we never see her working. Darby, who has long flowing hair and wears retro hippie peasant tops, makes artisanal ice cream and swears at her husband in public in a way that Cornelia envies.

After some miscarriages and delays, Cornelia finds herself, in her 40s, childless and aimless, catering to two egocentric men.

Josh's and Cornelia's best friends, Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz, aka Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys), have just had a new baby and can't talk about anything else. If Cornelia and Josh aren't parents and they aren't young, what are they? This might have been the deeper story to follow than Josh's silly man-crush.

As with the Coen brothers' last film, Inside Llewyn Davis, Baumbach's film turns on questions of cultural authenticity. Both Josh and Jamie express reverence for the godfathers of the cinéma vérité movement (Maysles, Wiseman, Pennebaker), including Josh's father-in-law and former mentor.

Jamie's playful appropriation of the past is a revelation to Josh. When Jamie offers him a listen on one side of his earphones to Frank Stallone's Eye of the Tiger, Josh reacts in amazement: "I remember when this song was just considered bad!"

Josh's retro-fetishism is a lot less fun. After checking out a rough cut, his father-in-law calls it "a six-and-a-half-hour film that's seven hours too long." Most of it includes droning interviews with an aged leftist Jewish intellectual (Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary).

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One of the movie's funniest, wordiest scenes involves Josh's attempts to do a pitch session, which sounds like an incoherent doctoral thesis, to a young hedge-fund investor with a gnat-like attention span.

Early on, this mixture of gags and regretful musings breezes by. At times the comedy is as broad as anything in a Steve Carrell midlife-crisis movie (Date Night, Crazy Stupid Love). Jamie and Darby take Josh and Cornelia along on a shaman-directed drug trip in which they ingest Peruvian mescaline; they spend the evening vomiting into buckets and hallucinating to music by Vangelis.

Then Baumbach switches gears and tries for something more serious. The mentor-protege relationship between Josh and Jamie moves forward along a somewhat All About Eve line. Jamie, full of flattery, persuades Josh to get involved with his film project, which starts as a prankish Facebook-based conceit that ends up involving an Afghanistan war vet (Brady Corbet) and impinges on Josh's own unfinished film.

It all wraps up in a clumsy confrontation at the Lincoln Center, on the evening of a tribute to Cornelia's dad. That leaves it to Grodin's character to make a sum-up speech about the necessity of balancing blunt truth with energy and appeal.

For two thirds of While We're Young, Baumbach demonstrates he's almost mastered that balance. But he wobbles a bit by turning his movie into a sermon at the end.

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