Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young" Is A Crafty Delight

Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” proves a dizzying ricochet off the writer-director’s previous effort, instant mumblecore classic “Frances Ha.” The result is nearly serendipitous, a soft career reset that marries the indie darling’s ever-growing art house aesthetic to the sight of Naomi Watts white-girl-dancing to 2Pac’s “Hit ‘Em Up.”

At face value, it’s a union that might seem destined for divorce. And the film – 1 cup comedy, 1 cup drama, ½ cup thriller – does suffer a few twinges of tonal whiplash. But it’s mostly magnificent, an unlikely but garden-fresh mishmash of metacommentary and populist comedy filmmaking with a career-best performance from mercurial funnyman Ben Stiller.

In a lesser film, forty-something protagonist Josh (Stiller) would manifest his mid-life crisis in broad, played out strokes – buying a convertible, cheating on his spouse, buying a fedora. (Okay, so the fedora gag is in the movie.) But Josh’s crisis isn’t a fertile-for-cliché identity crisis. No, his is more a reality crisis. As a struggling documentarian who’s eight interminable years in on his latest project, the dryness of his work has bled over into his life, blunting a once happy marriage to Cornelia (Watts).

Josh has forgotten where his movie ends and his life begins, or if either one ever began at all. With the spark of a new relationship inevitably lost to time, he and Cornelia are constantly reminded of their childlessness by all of their happy, baby-toting friends, fronted by the increasingly domestic Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz).

When Josh and Cornelia meet a pair of married twenty-somethings, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), our leads are as curious as they are reinvigorated, hopeful in the contagion of the young couple’s youth.

In Baumbach’s world, everyone is either a filmmaker – Jamie, a fledgling, Cornelia’s father Leslie (Charles Grodin), a legend – or a subject in waiting. Josh’s social circles have become so tight as to constrict like a boa, bathing his distorted reality in a gently humorous, vaguely incestuous light. He’s an extra-terrestrial in his own life, newborn to a world he no longer recognizes.

The irony of Josh’s embrace of technology and Jamie’s hipster-mandated refusal of it isn’t lost on Baumbach, who paints his characters’ opposing materialism via an expertly staged, early game montage. It’s among the filmmaker’s best work. But unlike “Frances Ha,” visuals and ambience eventually take a backseat to story, one as finely tuned as it is multi-layered.

Although laughs are initially sparse, the comedy kicks into high gear once Josh, Cornelia, Jamie, and Darby embark on an ayahuasca retreat. Riding a hallucinogenic wave of supposed introspection, Jamie literally vomits up his own affected pretenses into a stainless steel saucepot. Not only is the sequence uproarious, but it smoothly begins the story’s transformation into what it will become – a not-so-friendly game of documentary filmmaking chess between old school and new school.

To describe the story any further would spoil the fun, but it’s more than a stone’s throw from the wispy romantic comedy the film’s trailers are selling. When Josh’s frothy idealism bubbles to the surface in the pic’s searing climax, Baumbach speaks as clearly through his protagonist as he ever has, or any of his peers ever have, for that matter.

Despite a couple of hiccups, the project is a welcome love note to the restless, uneasy perfectionism that comes with creativity and it’s an exciting new direction for a filmmaker many thought they had pegged. Some fans might wish Baumbach had made another “Frances Ha,” another “Kicking And Screaming.” But instead he’s made his first “While We’re Young.” And thank God for that.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: March 27, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Maria Dizzia, Adam Horovitz
MPAA Rating: R (for language)