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Married Without Children, But With Overgrown Adolescents

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play married couple Cornelia and Josh in the Noah Baumbach film <em>While We're Young</em>.
Jon Pack
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play married couple Cornelia and Josh in the Noah Baumbach film While We're Young.

Noah Baumbach's best movie since 2005's The Squid and the Whale, While We're Young navigates into more mainstream territory while losing none of the writer-director's rueful wit. Oddly enough, the comedy's major weakness is that it's over-plotted, hardly an issue with such Baumbach flawed-character studies as Frances Ha and Greenberg.

The latter film's star, Ben Stiller, returns here as Josh, a documentarian whose current project has long been stalled. He's married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), who produces the work of her father, Leslie (Charles Grodin), an elder statesman of the documentary realm.

The movie begins with one of two scenes of Josh and Cornelia with a baby. It's not theirs, as the couple has somewhat reluctantly decided to remain childless. This has opened a cultural divide with their best friends, who are new parents. Cornelia tries to be accommodating, attending such horrors as a music class for infants. Josh, meanwhile, is editing his six-and-a-half-hour opus, which has something to do with an obscure incident in Turkish history.

Enter Jamie (Frances Ha's Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who appear at one of Josh's filmmaking classes. These twentysomething hipsters claim to be fans of Josh's earlier film, and have the free time Josh and Cornelia's child-encumbered friends lack. So the older couple eagerly hops a different divide, the generation gap.

Josh and Cornelia will follow their new friends just about anywhere, even to a Ayahuasca ceremony, where they drink a hallucinogenic brew and vomit their spiritual impurities. Less demanding are excursions to a "street beach" — no sand, no water — and Jamie and Darby's apartment, which they share with a young woman whose wardrobe consists of ironic T-shirts and not much else.

The youngsters live in a Brooklyn loft full of typewriters, VHS tapes, board games and vinyl LPs, and wear vintage clothes and hats. They're not entirely retro, however. Jamie frequently records events with his GoPro mini-videocam, and turns out to be an aspiring documentary maker. He may even intend to use Josh to his advance his own career.

This is where While We're Young becomes too contrived. The culture-clash satire would be just as pointed if Jamie weren't so conniving, and Josh simply came to see the younger man for what he is: glib, shallow and kind of annoying. Instead, Baumbach stages a major showdown at a tribute to Leslie, whose work is represented by a clip from an Albert and David Maysles film.

That's just one of many inside jokes and references. The score mixes respected, thematically apt oldies — David Bowie's "Golden Years," Paul McCartney and Wings' "Let 'Em In" — with such pomp-schlock as "Eye of the Tiger," which represent Jamie's non-judgmental pop-culture aesthetic.

Jamie has a band called Cookie O'Puss, named after a Carvel ice-cream cake and just one letter removed from "Cookie Puss," an early song by the Beastie Boys — whose Adam Horovitz plays Josh and Cornelia's new-dad friend. Also on screen briefly are musician Dean Wareham (formerly of Luna) and director Peter Bogdanovich, whose latest film was co-produced by Baumbach.

Such playful indulgences, however, don't reflect the overall tone of this surprisingly focused movie. Neither Stiller nor Grodin slip into their usual shtick, and the script offers complex moments to all its major characters — even Darby, who has the least to do, emotionally as well as narratively.

"I was trying out being generous," Josh admits dolefully at one point, but Baumbach actually succeeds at it. Equally skeptical of youthful self-assurance and middle-aged regret, While We're Young achieves an outlook that just might be called mature.

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Mark Jenkins reviews movies for, as well as for, which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.