While We’re Young centers on middle-aged married couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), both unfulfilled in their own ways but ostensibly happy together. She tried to have a baby and couldn’t. He’s a failed documentary filmmaker living in the shadow of Leslie (Charles Grodin), his father-in-law. They’re both at that stage (mid-40s) in which “the things that don’t happen until you’re old” start to happen. They have their freedom, but don’t take advantage of it.
They probably secretly resent one another for their unhappiness. This is a marriage in a funk.
Enter aspiring filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who makes ice cream. They’re both 25 and ironically retro, preferring VHS tapes, typewriters and other old-school accouterments to their modern counterparts. They think it’s better and makes them more “free” and “in the moment.” In reality, it’s artsy-pretentious hippie nonsense being practiced in a desperate attempt to tell the world you’re bohemian. In one scene, Jamie says he’s “pathologically happy” — damn convenient when you’re delusional about the real world around you. Jamie wears a fedora, which automatically qualifies him as a douchebag.
The problem with Jamie being this obnoxious, smug and unlikable is that we need to believe Josh would be enamored enough with Jamie for them to become best friends, because that’s what happens. Sure, Jamie provides Josh a different way of looking at the world, but the man-crush Josh develops feels forced rather than organic. For that to work, more of Josh’s discontentedness should have been shown earlier so we can see why he’d regard Jamie as a conduit to happiness.
The relationship evolves, things change and some people aren’t what they seem. This builds up to a better final third than what the first two-thirds lead us to expect. But it’s too little, too late and, worse, whatever it is writer/director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg) is trying to say about traditional values versus modern values, he doesn’t say it with conviction. He tackles issues of credibility, friendship, insecurity, selfishness and more in a way that’s deliberately philosophical rather than practical — he’s just throwing it out there, saying “Here it is!” without bothering to tell us if he thinks it’s positive or negative.
That’s weak. If he’s going to use a safe route in the time-worn vehicle of the old vs. new debate, he should be critical of both sides. That way, all the flaws are exposed and we can judge for ourselves, because the truth is this: Where you are in life will determine which couple in the film you relate to the most, which by extension may reflect your value system. So if Baumbach had been equally critical of both arguments, no one’s offended.
The film is designed to get viewers to look inward in an attempt to self-assess in this crazy world of ours, but this is key: Many of us won’t bother, because we haven’t been sufficiently prompted or inspired. We’re not involved, merely observing. This is like telling someone to have deep thoughts, but providing nothing to inspire those thoughts.
While We’re Young could and should have done more with its subject matter by being sharper and more blunt to social woes. Playing it safe didn’t do the characters or the film any favors.