Early in Noah Baumbach’s film “While We’re Young,” a young documentary filmmaker pitches a movie to an older documentarian. The elder one responds somewhat favorably yet does raise a question about whether or not the premise will carry through for an entire movie.
“It doesn’t sound like enough,” he worries.
You too worry about the premise of Baumbach’s new take on neurotic New Yorkers and their endless travails interspersed with noshing at out-of-the-way restaurants, artistic ambition and a tiny bit of hipsterism. It doesn’t sound like it will carry its weight for an entire feature.
Here’s the premise: A forty-something couple, played with unerring accuracy by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, feels left behind in the baby-boom arena by all their just-delivered friends, who swiftly shut them out since they are, ahem, sans infant.
Then they meet a hipster couple, also played with unerring accuracy by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, who remind them of their earlier selves — or maybe the way they wish they had been in their late twenties or perhaps being in their company makes them feel young again.
So you do wonder how will this play out in the screenplay written and directed by Baumbach. Can this alone sustain a film — two couples roughly two decades apart, find (rekindled) love and happiness in each other’s company?
I suspect Woody Allen could have made that work but Baumbach goes off on a tangent that doesn’t suit his theme and makes for an erratic film experience. One, however, filled with excellent acting by an ensemble cast and moments here and there that really hit home.
What diverts this film is, surprisingly, the aspect of everyone being a doc filmmaker. Stiller’s Josh is a professor in the subject yet since a brilliant debut has been laboring on a follow-up for eight years. His wife, Watts’ Cornelia, is also in that profession but due to her hubby’s ego problems must work with her father (Charles Grodin in one of his best recent roles), a Maysles-like legendary doc guy.
The couple’s childless status, after a couple of miscarriages by Cornelia, has caused their busy-parenting best friends to shun them (more crudely than seems credible). So they have settled prematurely into a middle-age funk.
Meanwhile, the hipster couple, Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried), aspires to make relevant docs too, and alternate between fawning at their new-found friends’ feet and semi-exploiting their contacts — not to mention making sure to enter the orbit of Josh’s highly esteemed father-in-law.
The early sections of the film, as the younger couple introduces the older one to new restaurants, trends and self-help movements (this section highly satirical but also very much overextended), brings the most laughs.
Baumbach has a sharp eye and ear for the nuances at play in this give-and-take across a generation and for how each side sometimes reflects the most fervent desires of the other.
But then a plot kicks in that does the film no good. Jamie subtly pulls Josh into helping on a doc he’s exploring and to Josh’s astonishment and chagrin — remember, he thought the idea an insubstantial one — the idea begins to pay off.
Indeed the discoveries and footage are so great it’s almost too good to be true — which turns out to be the case. Somehow Baumbach lets his satirical take on couples and their mutual admiration/envy to gets diverted into what amounts to an NYU seminar on truth in documentary filmmaking.
For Jamie has not only taken a few shortcuts in his quest for docu truth but has deceived Josh more than a little. In filmmaking one shouldn’t change subjects in mid-stream.
Either storyline would possibly make an interesting film whether as comedy (as this remains) or drama. But Baumbach never finds a way to marry the nearly parallel storylines and winds up sabotaging both.
Stiller again shows how very well he can play frustrated (and now middle-aged) men who get so tangled up in their pride and disappointments they can barely function. His Josh only comes alive when he thinks he can unmask Jamie at his game, an unworthy but understandable gesture.
Watts, who works so often these days yet seemingly never falters in delivering believable, in-depth characterizations, lets slip her own concerns and disappointments with her husband but never loses sight of her basic love for the man she married.
Driver is all too dead-on as a guy who has little relationship with what might be called a conscience and always knows what’s best — for himself. Seyfried is also fine in her role, but this is the one character Baumbach has invested the least interest in. She needs her own reasons within this foursome but instead Seyfried, as an actress and a character, struggles to find true purpose in the comedy.
Baumbach is on to something here, how the process of aging can take control of lives and distort reality so a person can lose sight of what’s most important. Yet “While We’re Young” plays like a screenplay that was several drafts away from hitting its target.
Opens: March 27, 2015 (A24)
Production: IACF Films
Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz, Ryan Serhart, Dree Hemingway, Brady Corbet, Maria Dizzia, Peter Yarrow
Director/screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
Producers: Scott Rudin, Noah Baumbach, Lila Yacoub, Eli Bush
Director of photography: Sam Levy
Music: James Murphy
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Editor: Jennifer Lame
R rating, 94 minutes