God bless Greta Gerwig, and not just for her own terrific gifts. Greenberg, her first personal and professional collaboration with director Noah Baumbach, proved to be a fantastic match, most notably in how her loopy carbonation as a performer seemed to shake the filmmaker from an increasingly caustic, none-more-bleak path. (I firmly believe Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding is a brilliant, incisive movie. I'm also pretty sure that I'd rather sit in fire ants than sit through it again.) By the time she took center stage in Frances Ha, a newfound warmth had found its place in Baumbach's already formidable comedic arsenal.
Gerwig may not make an appearance in Baumbach's latest, While We're Young (don't worry, she's in his next one), but her presence as a leavening agent thankfully persists. The director's knack for skewering the egos of the inflated remains ferociously on point, but there's also a spirit of semi-empathy to soften the blows without diluting the overall impact. Baumbach's new outlook takes what could have simply been Look at These Flipping Hipsters: The Motion Picture and transforms it into a hilariously sharp look at the generation gap. The movie distributes its scorn equally and with a rueful good humor. It gets as good as it gives.
Kicking off with a barbed Ibsen quote, Baumbach's script follows a married pair of faintly upper-crust New Yorkers (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) feeling burnt out from the incessant baby fever surrounding them. Relief of a sort comes when they form a bond with an extremely trendy younger couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who profess a flattering admiration for Stiller's work as a documentarian. A flood of artisanal ice cream, doofy hats, and ersatz Sanskrit phrases awaits.
Baumbach has always had a knack for casting, and his streak continues here: Returning from Greenberg, Stiller does his messy slow-burn thing to perfection, while Watts flourishes at the opportunity to be funny. (Her reaction to a Yanni-style children's concert is dead-solid perfect.) The chemistry continues through the supporting cast, including a surprisingly natural Adam Horovitz (né Ad-Rock) as a befuddled new parent, and Charles Grodin, who absolutely kills as Watts' father. The lynchpin, though, proves to be Driver, who takes seemingly every existing stereotype about his generation—even the way he clasps his hands seems designed to drive viewers up a tree—and goes with it to a degree that feels both natural and strangely honorable. Whatever it is he's doing (I'm not sure if it can be classified as acting, really), it comes off beautifully, and horribly.
There are a lot of targets here, and the combination of rapid-fire one-liners and cringing reaction shots admittedly becomes a bit less surefooted in the final act, as the volatile give-and-take between the couples reaches an ethical showdown that feels a bit clunky. It's the little moments throughout that stick with you, though, ranging from the way that everybody handles their phones differently, to how one era's trash becomes the next's ironic treasure. (Few filmmakers can top Baumbach's ability to bring back the songs that nobody is actually nostalgic for.) Taken as a whole, While We're Young makes for a fantastically entertaining character study, even if you'd flee from these characters on the street.
While We're Young
Director Noah Baumbach
Opens Friday, Tin Pan Theater