'Is this Really What We Want From Life?'

While We’re Young
(USA, 97 min.)
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Horowitz, Charles Grodin

Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young easily features the best and funniest final shot you’ll see this year. The closer of the film offers a comical two-shot of Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) with their mouths agape, noses wrinkled, and faces seized in panic. They’re not looking a dead body or any other ill fortune: they’re looking at a baby, one of those wrinkly, noisy, smelly poop producers that ruin brunches for some and define success for others. Josh and Cornelia, a fortysomething husband-and-wife duo of New York’s creative set, are frozen in horror as Stiller and Watts create some droll physical comedy with this reaction shot that offers the perfect endnote to Baumbach’s film. “Is this really what we want from life?” their fearful eyes ask as they observe the gurgling little brat as it chomps on an iPhone.

The question of what one wants from life is very topical since Don Draper and company are asking themselves the same question every week during Mad Men’s spectacular final season. The question’s relevant in any age, for a husband and a wife are still are family, as are any two partners, and Josh and Cornelia embody a growing generation that finds contentment in fulfilling work, good friends, and an endlessly indefatigable lust for life. Josh is hacking away on a documentary film a decade in the making while Cornelia is a successful producer working comfortably in the shadow of her highly esteemed non-fiction filmmaker father (Charles Grodin). Cornelia seems perfectly happy and has accepted the fact that they can’t have kids, but Josh’s fatigue with this film that won’t grow up despite ten years of parenting leads him to wonder what he and Cornelia might be missing in life. And, of course, their best friends (Maria Dizzia and Beastie Boys’ Adam Horowitz) just had a baby.

The baby overwhelms and dictates their get-togethers—one can only feign interest in a sleeping blob so much—and Josh and Cornelia find some energy and excitement in a young couple they meet at one of Josh’s documentary film classes. Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) are younger, hipper versions of Josh and Cornelia’s ideal selves. Jamie makes documentaries and Darby makes ice cream, and together dance, raise a chicken, take hallucinogenic drugs with a shaman, and enjoy life without any of the gadgets and doodads on which Josh and Cornelia rely. These young hipsters are so cool that they become Josh and Cornelia’s new BFFs.

Never mind that Josh and Cornelia are obviously in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Jamie and Darby are spoiled posers working an angle and anyone can see that aside from Josh and Cornelia who behave like a dad finding youth in a sexy new car. How great it must be to feel young and carefree all over again, rather than pitiable and childless in the eyes of people their own age. Josh and Cornelia feel so refreshed that the blind themselves to the finer things that make their marriage so strong.

Stiller and Watts are an excellent couple, playing the droll intellectual humour with the wisdom of age and experience. Stiller seems more comfortable than ever in this role, while Watts is especially good in a strong follow-up to last year’s scene-stealing one-two punch of St. Vincent and Birdman. Driver and Seyfried are also strong in the trickier roles that demand the audience to find them self-conscious and annoying—Driver’s Jamie is an especially irksome douchebag—but the couples contrast nicely to create a comedy of manners out of Josh and Cornelia’s fall into the morass of middle age.

While We’re Young, like Baumbach’s previous film Frances Ha, finds the pleasure of leading an unconventional life to the fullest. If Frances Ha is Baumbach’s Manhattan, then While We’re Young might be his Hannah and Her Sisters. This sly new comedy from the Woody Allen of his generation is a smart and funny look at love and life at that awful turning point: middle age. While We’re Young, like Hannah, looks at the ways in which different parties define success and happiness with a norm (i.e. two kids and a routine) that simply doesn’t suit everyone, especially creative types for whom life means creating their own mould. The parallels between Baumbach’s film and the Allen film feel especially strong when it comes to the conundrum of children, but whereas Hannah and her sisters (namely Holly, played by Dianne Wiest in a well-earned Oscar-winning performance) find children and traditional relationships as the answers to their unhappiness, While We’re Young remains firmly current right through its very last shot. While We're Young puts adulthood and youth, Ibsen and vomit, hand-in-hand as it celebrates a scatterbrained life in which no answers are clear and uncertainty is fearfully freeing.

This sharp and observant film signals a shift in values with its amusing opening title cards that quote a set of lines from Ibsen’s play “The Master Builder,” in which a weary husband fears the next generation knocking at his door and his wife matter-of-factly suggests letting them in. The lines of the play reverberate through Josh and Cornelia’s up-and-down relationship with Jamie and Darby, especially when Josh sees Jamie’s own success and ambition as a direct threat to his artistic integrity and manliness alike. The quote offers a funny counterpoint to the final shot, since the film asks audiences to identify with the new tide while seeing the comedic horror that lies in a babbling baby.

Baumbach’s contemporary study of these two WASPy DINKS (Dual Income, No Kids) comically and confidently shows that the values of our parents’ generation simply don’t define happiness today. It’s okay to be childless. The nuclear family doesn’t hold the same stock that it used to, even in comedy, which traditionally reaffirms family as the institution that prevails above all. Having kids simply isn’t the same option it was twenty years ago, especially for couples like Josh and Cornelia, who likely graduate from arts school with crippling debt, no job prospects, and an endless cycle of unpaid work. The choice to have kids these days comes much later in life, and While We’re Young smartly and refreshingly shows that a good career and a mutually rewarding relationship is just as strong a marker of success as anything is. Childlessness isn’t failure; it’s simply a lifestyle. And a potentially great one at that for those who choose it.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

While We’re Young is currently in theatres from Elevation Pictures.
Update: It screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne beginning July 8.

How did you like Baumbach's latest film?