‘While We’re Young’ Review: Noah Baumbach’s Ben Stiller Comedy Has Mass Appeal
To date, the most successful movie that Noah Baumbach has been involved with grossed $530 million worldwide. This is an astounding and somewhat surprising figure until it’s revealed that the movie in question is Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted – a movie that Baumbach co-wrote with the writer of the other two Madagascar movies, Eric Darnell. As a director, Baumbach’s most successful movie to date is 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, which grossed a little over $7 million domestically. This will all change when While We’re Young opens this week. Noah Baumbach has made a commercially viable film.
It’s a strange thing that’s been missing from Baumbach’s career: a commercial hit. Even his contemporaries — say, a director like Wes Anderson — have made movies that make money. (Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which came out earlier this year, has grossed $60 million to date.) Obviously, not everyone cares about making a film with mass appeal and once it does happen, people like me will say things like, “Well, I was a huge fan of Baumbach before he had a big hit. Did you ever see Kicking and Screaming?”
Of course this is all speculation. While We’re Young could somehow make less than his prior movies. People are a fickle bunch! But I think the odds of that are very low. People still love Ben Stiller. True, this isn’t the first time Stiller has worked with Baumbach – they teamed up for 2010’s Greenberg, which made a little over $4 million (and, yes, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted) – but this is the first time Stiller has worked with Baumbach where he’s not animated or not playing a misanthrope. In While We’re Young, Ben Stiller is the Ben Stiller that people like.
Stiller plays Josh, a struggling documentarian who has been working on the same film for years. While teaching a class, Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) – soon, along with Josh’s wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), the four start spending some considerable time together and Jamie and Darby’s young, hipster sensibilities wear off on the older Josh and Cornelia. This creates an interesting dichotomy as Josh starts “acting younger” while, at the same time, he is diagnosed with arthritis.
A criticism I’ve heard of While We’re Young is that it’s a “New York movie.” When I hear this criticism, it’s always from someone who lives in New York City. It’s an interesting complaint: It’s meant as a way to relate with someone from, say, Iowa, and maybe that it isn’t fair that there are so many inside jokes in the film that aren’t aimed at someone from Iowa (i.e. Will someone not from New York know what a Williamsburg hipster is? Answer: They probably will and who cares?)
In reality, it’s a little condescending (but, again, not meant that way) in the same respects that only someone from New York could enjoy ‘Annie Hall.’ (I am not comparing ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘While We’re Young’ other than the cities in which they both take place.) As someone who grew up in Missouri (and, admittedly, has lived in New York for ten years), I can’t see this as being an alienating problem. Basically, the plot of the film boils down to “middle-aged people become friends with young people, hilarity ensues.”
I’ve also seen some complaints that Baumbach’s version of “young hipsters” is skewed to the absurd. Well, of course it is! Baumbach is 45 years old! Of course he’s not going to be the filmmaking voice of someone who is currently 25. Baumbach has a deft ability to still make a movie that feels young – 2013’s Frances Ha is a good example – but his perspective, his point of view is going to be that of someone who is in his mid-40s. Ben Stiller’s Josh is Baumbach, not Adam Driver’s Jamie. In that respect, While We’re Young makes a perfect bookend to 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, a film that is about what it’s like to be in one's early 20s, which Baumbach was then. It’s just remarkable that Baumbach made his first true commercial movie now instead of then.
I don’t look at While We’re Young as any kind of sellout on Baumbach’s part. (And what would that even mean?) He’s just stumbled upon a story that’s going to have more mass appeal than the brilliant and delightful Frances Ha, which somehow made less money than Greenberg. A24 has marketed the film as a “broad Ben Stiller comedy that also features that other guy you now like, Adam Driver.” This is smart marketing, but it’s still a Baumbach film – just looser and even funnier than they usually are. I don’t know, it’s almost like, in his mid-40s, Baumbach has learned to have a little fun.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.