Even Noah Baumbach is capable of a floater every now and then. The writer-director of such provocative pieces of irritant portraiture as Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Frances Ha reunites with Ben Stiller for While We're Young, a light comedy of manners about how not to age gracefully. Baumbach should not be dealing in light comedies of manners. While We're Young has a weak and hasty look about it.
The action revolves around Josh and Cornelia Srebnick (Stiller and Naomi Watts), a pair of fortysomething, married documentary filmmakers living in New York City. They're completely wrapped up in themselves and their careers, of course, but are also childless and feeling guilty about it, in contrast to their domesticated best friends, played by Maria Dizzia and former Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. Worse, the financially strapped Josh is having trouble completing the doc he's been working on for ten years, an impenetrable cultural study featuring a talking head played by folk-music patriarch Peter Yarrow. Worse still, Josh doesn't get along with Cornelia's successful doc-maker father (Charles Grodin) — personally or professionally. Bitter backbiting and matrimonial blahs are the catch of the day, every day. Stiller, who starred in Baumbach's Greenberg, can play this character in his sleep. He may actually be asleep in one or two shots.
Into this dreary stewpot are suddenly poured unexpected acquaintances Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), certified hipsters who are everything Josh and Cornelia are not — brash to the point of arrogance, confident, effortlessly au courant, and most of all, young. Josh gets a man-crush on Jamie, who just so happens to be making his own documentary (so that's where they're all coming from). Cornelia is less impressed. Before long the fogies are tagging along with the trendies and a complete lifestyle shift is underway. Josh impulsively adopts a fedora like Jamie's — big mistake. On Jamie it's coolly ironic; on Josh the hat makes him look like a senior citizen who's late for his favorite PBS broadcast. The laughs are strained.
Compared to Baumbach's previous razor-sharp character studies, While We're Young might as well be the next Woody Allen comedy, a routine middle-age-crazy sitcom for over-educated urbanites. When more than half of a movie's characters arouse nothing but contempt, though, it's difficult to find safe footing. Baumbach's next project, Mistress America, evidently teams him with Greta Gerwig, the star of Frances Ha and his number-one leading lady. The disgruntled adventures of Josh and Cornelia — self-help-book fodder that might have been a discarded subplot from the previous movie — appear to be nothing more than a career placeholder.