Indie filmmaker and prototypical New Yorker Noah Baumbach found mainstream success in 2005 with his semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale, which was inspired by his adolescent years (and his parents' messy divorce) in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope (in its pre-gentrified days). In recent years, the now 45-year-old Baumbach appears to have found much inspiration in the classic films of Woody Allen.
Baumbach's little-seen 2012 gem Frances Ha combines elements familiar from Allen's 1970s masterworks. It stars Baumbach's girlfriend Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the film) in the title role of an endearingly daft New Yorker, which could also describe Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. (As if to complete the circle, Gerwig appeared in Allen's 2012 To Rome With Love.) As a black-and-white love letter to New York City and its endlessly soul-searching denizens, Frances Ha also can't help but recall Allen's Manhattan.
Baumbach's While We're Young jumps one decade ahead to echo Allen's 1980s films Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Frances Ha's essential sweetness is replaced by something a bit darker and a lot more complicated and ambiguous. The light comedy is balanced by drama and satire. By focusing his story on two Brooklyn couples a generation apart who become unlikely friends, Baumbach not only gets to the heart of present-day New York but also examines the new generation gap between digital-era millennials and those who came of age 15 or 20 years earlier. As depicted in While We're Young, the two generations share much in terms of popular culture but have very different ideas about everything from marriage to cultural authenticity and professional success.
Fortysomething Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentary filmmaker who's been obsessing for 10 years on an unfinished, six-hour-long and very dry film. His wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) used to produce the films made by her father Leslie (Charles Grodin), a revered pioneer of the documentary form. It seems like all their friends are having babies but their own marriage is stuck in neutral. (Maria Dizzia and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz are hilarious as the couple's supposedly blissed-out best-friends-with-baby.) Twentysomething aspiring documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) approach Josh after crashing his continuing education class, and friendships ensue as the younger couple's free-spirited nature reinvigorates the older one. But as Jamie worms his way into nearly every aspect of Josh and Cornelia's lives, his motives quickly become suspect.
While We're Young's first hour has enough keen observations on modern life for a half-dozen movies, and its telling portrait of an acutely status-and-success obsessed New York is long overdue. It's depicted as a place where even youthful art-making hipsters and the somewhat older art-making creative class never can really bridge their divide, though they suffer from the same narcissistic immaturity.
The film's last 30 minutes lapse into an implausible discussion of truth and ethics in documentary filmmaking. It all seems beside the point in a movie most interested in the hardships of marriage and the pain of lost youth — and in giving its audience much to think about and discuss on the way home. That's one idea of success that While We're Young fulfills easily.