The central characters in Noah Baumbach’s films have a high degree of tolerance for their own ambivalence and an unsurprising indulgence for their rampant solipsism. In that respect — and the unstated but pervasive Jewishness of the atmosphere surrounding them — they bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Woody Allen’s protagonists. What sets them apart is the fact that Baumbach has a healthy critical distance from them and, while he treats them with a certain affection, he never embraces their self-involvement with the enthusiasm of the Woodman.
Baumbach’s new film, “While We’re Young,” which opens on Friday, March 27, is a vivid case in point.
Josh Srebnick (Ben Stiller) is a once-promising documentary filmmaker whose career has foundered on his current project, a decade-long attempt to profile a deeply cerebral left-wing academic. Josh’s fear of completion has brought his career to a halt, while his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) continues to work as a producer for her legendary dad, fellow documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin, in a particularly wise and nuanced performance). In the meantime, Josh and Connie’s friends and peers are having babies, a life-changing experience that puts some distance between them and the non-parenting Srebnicks.
Enter 20-somethings Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a couple of “free spirits” who easily insinuate themselves into Josh’s life, with Connie as a somewhat reluctant fellow traveler. Jamie is an aspiring documentary filmmaker, Darby makes artisanal ice creams, and they are epitomes of the 21st-century hipster, complete with retro wardrobes and floor-to-ceiling vinyl record collection.
Inevitably, the rudderless Josh finds himself becoming an epigone of Jamie, adopting his fashion sense, his fitness regime and his weirdly eclectic spiritual interests (including hallucinogenic plants), with pointedly humorous results. Baumbach plays a lot of this material for broad laughs, but there is an undercurrent of seriousness that feeds our sense that although the writer-director has not lost his sympathy for his maladroit hero, neither has he been bamboozled by Josh’s puppy-dog loyalty to his new lifestyle. It’s a somewhat difficult balancing act, the mark of a growing maturity absent from some of Baumbach’s earlier films.
That maturity is one of the key elements that have accrued in recent Baumbach movies “Greenberg” and “Frances Ha,” like so much money in an interest-bearing account. While I’m not entirely satisfied with the occasionally klutzy directorial choices in those films or in “While We’re Young,” at a time in Jewish-American filmmaking when not enough of its avatars are resisting the blandishments of the Allen model, any stab at grown-up behavior is aimed in the right direction.
Intriguingly, the new film makes a singular unexpected lurch in a darker direction as Josh’s personal connection to Jamie takes on professional elements as well, with the older, more experienced filmmaker becoming involved in a seemingly anodyne project of Jamie’s that has more serious ramifications than Josh expects.
From that point, “While We’re Young” seemingly spins out of control, veering among a conspiracy-theory drama, a rumination on the ethics of the “new” documentary, and a sputtering comedy about mid-life marital crisis. The thematic elements seem not to cohere and the final movement of the film feels rushed. More than that, Stiller’s inflexible vocal mannerisms and inexpressive face become stumbling blocks that makes it difficult for Baumbach to link up the various thematic concerns as the tone darkens. In short, what worked in “Greenberg” misfires in the more complex film.
Still, Baumbach’s ambitious genre-mixing has a bloody-minded integrity that refreshingly raises the whole above its ill-matched parts, and lifts “While We’re Young” far beyond the increasingly vapid and trivial world of Woody and his imitators. To put it bluntly, Baumbach may not yet have quite figured out how the pieces of his story fit together, but “While We’re Young” is a step towards a self-assessment of and by its protagonist that is genuinely heroic, if not entirely satisfying.
“While We’re Young,” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, opens Friday, March 27 at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square (1998 Broadway) and Regal Cinemas Union Square 14 (850 Broadway).