“While We’re Young” explores midlife crises, mocks hipster culture

Alex Pelham

“While We’re Young” serves as an amusing and poignant satire of the hipster generation. It playfully mocks “artsy” New York millennials while exploring a range of more serious topics including midlife crises and the difficulty of making authentic, creative work. The acting, and particularly performances by Ben Stiller and Adam Driver, perfectly conveys the seemingly insurmountable generation gap between the young and old. Although it occasionally juggles too many themes at one time, “While We’re Young” takes a quirky, clever look at people who are determined to feed off each other’s energy.

Josh (Stiller), a documentary filmmaker, has spent eight years working on his masterpiece — much to the chagrin of his restless wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts). Their tedious life is interrupted when the pair encounter Jamie (Driver), who is a fan of Josh’s work, and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried). The young couple are humorous flag-bearers for the middle-class hipster lifestyle: They collect vinyls, write exclusively with typewriters and believe the world is theirs for the taking. Josh and Cornelia, who seek to feel youthful again, quickly become obsessed with the young couple. When Josh begins working on Jamie’s new documentary, he discovers that Jamie’s seemingly authentic vision and overall genial attitude may
be misleading.

Director and writer Noah Baumbach knows how to use hipsters for hilarious comedy fodder. He doesn’t waste any of this rich material. Nearly every joke hits its target, whether Baumbach is employing physical comedy (Josh and Darby dancing frantically to hip-hop) or taking a more subtle approach (detailing Jamie’s arrogance and pretension). The strange world Jamie and Darby occupy is a huge comedic highlight. The film hits on all the stereotypes millenials tend to attract, but the digs never feel malevolent or overdone. 

Stiller gives a heartfelt performance as the ambitious Josh. His character’s obsession with finding truth and artistic beauty in filmmaking is inspiring, and his overall fear of failure feels sincere and urgent. Driver’s cocky attitude keeps the film moving, while his character’s self-confidence and sheer smugness make him fun to hate. Watts’ sympathetic character experiences incredible self-doubt in her life, especially as she starts wondering whether not having children with Josh was a missed opportunity. Seyfried charms as Jamie’s girlfriend — it’s intriguing to see a character come to grips with the notion that her entire lifestyle is just one, big passing fad.

“While We’re Young” attempts to explore many themes, and its narrative at times feels engaged in a balancing act. The film focuses on Josh and Cornelia as they worry about growing old and explore a younger, hipper world. Simultaneously, the story attempts to address the morals of documentary filmmaking. Josh cares about seeking the truth, while Jamie willingly manipulates facts for the benefit of an interesting story.

Although it’s interesting to see how filmmakers of two different generations tackle the same ethical dilemmas, the film’s transition from midlife crises to the ethics of filmmaking feels too sudden. Baumbach tries to give each plot equal focus, but the
combination isn’t smooth. They hardly mesh together, and the result feels rushed. The film’s narrative may have been cleaner if it had one theme to take a dominant role.

“While We’re Young” looks at the humorous rise of the hipster generation while also delivering touching messages about growing old and using art to find “the truth.” Although the film feels unfocused at times, the stellar comedy and richly drawn characters make up for that small shortcoming.