It's safe to say there aren't a lot of movies out there about reaching middle age gracefully and happily.
And how could there be? The only thing worse than getting old, as the saying goes, is the alternative. But at least we have the movies — the good ones, anyway — to make us laugh about this fraught, undignified experience. And few recent films have done it better than Noah Baumbach's deliciously sharp and touching "While We're Young."
It seems apt indeed that Baumbach's star here, Ben Stiller, is 49 in real life — the age at which one finally, truly cannot deny having, SOMEHOW, reached middle age. In a minor but hilarious exchange, Stiller's 40-something character, Josh Srebnick, is told he has arthritis. Surely, Josh protests with utter guilelessness, it's not "arthritis arthritis" — it's some other kind. "It's arthritis, and usually I only say it once," the doctor replies.
Josh is a documentary filmmaker who's been working on the same project for a decade, about a subject so dense and academic and boring we can't explain it here. He's married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts, doing some of her best work in years), who also works on documentaries, assisting her father, a legendary documentarian played by the wonderful Charles Grodin. You may think that's enough documentarians for one movie, but you'd be wrong: the film's dream casting also includes Adam Driver as Jamie, a 20-ish, ambitious documentarian-wannabe.
While the Josh-Jamie dynamic will be essential to the film's ruminations on aging, "While We're Young" is also about a marriage. The wrinkle for Josh and Cornelia is that they don't have kids, at an age when babymaking — particularly in baby-centric Brooklyn — is the chief activity of all their friends. Alone at home, Josh and Cornelia speak defiantly (and unconvincingly) of the advantages of baby-free life. "We could go to Paris tomorrow if we wanted to!" she says. He agrees, while noting — with middle-aged practicality — that it would be hard to get the best airfares at such short notice.
One day, the free-spirited Jamie and his pretty wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), attend a class Josh is giving, introducing themselves as big fans of his previous film. Josh is flattered of course, and soon he and Cornelia are dining with the younger couple. One dinner leads to more. The older folks become intoxicated with the youngsters' free-wheeling, impossibly hip lifestyle.
The details here are delicious. Darby makes artisanal ice cream, and does hip hop aerobics. For fun, the couple explores abandoned subway tunnels. Their hipness has reached such an advanced state that they're totally retro: They watch old VHS tapes, play board games, use typewriters; Jamie even speaks like someone out of a '50s novel, beginning sentences with "Say ..." Josh and Cornelia, in contrast, scan their iPads constantly, watch shows on Hulu and check texts every minute. When, at one point, the foursome can't recall the word "marzipan," Josh and Cornelia reach for their devices. "No," says Jamie, with the serenity of a monk. "Let's just NOT know what it is."
The plot thickens when Jamie seeks Josh's help on his own documentary, an enticing topic he seems to have simply stumbled upon. But soon, the thorny ethics of Jamie's endeavor will emerge, and Josh will begin to wonder whether he's been played for a sucker. A terrific climactic scene at an awards dinner — a multi-generational ideological confrontation — is both funny and disturbing, as Josh discovers that the rules by which he's always lived may have changed without his ever noticing.
The ending is somehow uplifting — Josh may not have won his battle against aging, but it feels like a truce is in the air. And in Baumbach's hands, the battle has, at least, proved highly entertaining.
"While We're Young," an A24 Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for language." Running time: 94 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.