There's greatness in While We're Young. It resides in the corners of the film: the immensely detailed production design, the hand-picked soundtrack, and the cutting dialogue. It's a New York film about New Yorkers by a New Yorker, but writer/director Noah Baumbach touches on universal truths involving generational rivalries, self-delusion, and profound, crippling jealousy. This is one of the best, truest films of the year.
While We're Young begins with lines from Ibsen's A Master Builder. The protagonist, Solness, fears young people knocking on his door and Hilde, a young person herself, tells him to throw it open. It's foreshadowing, but it's also a warning.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, married and intellectual, the over the hill couple convince each other they're living the lives they want despite everyone around them having babies. Josh wonders, "Maybe the point is we have the freedom, not what we do with it."
Visiting their best friends, Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia, Adam Horovitz), who've just spawned, Baumbach conveys Josh and Cornelia's fear of having children but also their desire for it. They front like they're happy, but the two are fooling themselves.
Josh doubles as a film professor and it's after class he meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie's a fan of Josh's one film and he convinces the teacher and his wife to come to dinner. Afterwards, Josh and Cornelia are invigorated with the spirit of youth, and excited about their new friends.
Watching these relationships form, however, is like watching a car crash in immense slow motion. In Greenberg, Stiller's previous collaboration with Baumbach, the actor plays another walking mid-life crisis who falls ass backwards into a party with a bunch of teenagers. But in Greenberg, Stiller doesn't try to assimilate. He tries to assimilate them, changing the music and equating older with smarter. But we see the opposite in While We're Young. In both movies, Stiller is an alien in a strange land, but now he wants to fit in. He's not scared off by the youth, he's envious of it, and his wife is too.
But Josh and Cornelia don't really know their new young friends. They simply like the way they feel when they're around. Cornelia longs for "spontaneity" and she gets that simply walking into Jamie and Darby's apartment. A brilliant, Wes Anderson-esque montage races through the place. The 25-year-old couple live the ultimate hipster lifestyle: They watch VHS tapes, listen to records, and own a chicken. A beautiful roommate casually walks around pants-less. And Josh and Cornelia, so bored by their own lives, are seduced. They covet the lifestyle as if theirs is worth nothing.
From the audience, we can see this won't end well. Hell, Baumbach tells us so with his prologue. The Master Builder and While We're Young are both cautionary tales about the danger of infatuation. Usually these stories are about a man meeting a younger woman (Lolita, Starting Out in the Evening) who changes his life. But, the archetype is flipped by Baumbach, who imagines the same rules apply to friendship between generations. He's right.
But the big reason While We're Young is great is how it resolves its meandering plot. Baumbach surprises us with a final act that changes everything we've seen so far. Characters become different people, lessons are learned, and Josh, who takes the film over as it progresses, realizes the truth of the situation and does everything he can to expose it. He grows, and the film becomes something new. It proves how hard some people try to avoid the answer they knew all along.