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Movies

Review: Two generations collide in witty ‘While We’re Young’

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in "While We're Young." (Jon Pack/A24 Films)
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in "While We're Young." (Jon Pack/A24 Films)

Getting older has never been funnier.

“While We’re Young,” Noah Baumbach’s wistful comedy of midlife manners, pays homage to everything from “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to “All About Eve,” while spinning a surprisingly insightful cautionary tale about the challenges of aging in a youth-obsessed culture. It works because the clever director (“The Squid and the Whale”) knows how to mock society without ever seeming snarky or mean.

What’s novel about this portrait of a midlife crisis is that both halves of the artsy New York couple are experiencing the traumas and regrets of hitting their 40s together. For neurotic Gen-Xer Josh (Ben Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), it’s a team event. The filmmaker also draws sharp parallels between a couple’s need to have a baby to keep their love alive and the allure of a May/December bromance, both of which bring the possibility of renewal, the zing of getting to see the world through fresh eyes.

Josh is instantly smitten with crafty millennial Jamie (Adam Driver), who kisses Josh’s behind after auditing one of his classes. Josh has been longing for the validation of a protégé, someone to look up to him and fawn over his platitudes. Once a promising documentarian, he’s been slaving away on the same excruciatingly boring political treatise for 10 years. It has become his white whale, his excuse for bailing on the rest of his life.

A master at the art of the mellow schmooze, Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) drag Josh and Cornelia (a producer) out of their get-to-bed-by-11 comfort zone and introduce them to the world of retro-boho hipsters filled with vinyl-collecting, VHS-watching, street-beach swimming, neo Luddites who believe Google is eroding our brains.

Their new BFFs give them a shot of energy and enthusiasm they didn’t know they needed, temporarily distracting them from their slipping spot on the life cycle. Josh and Cordelia are blindsided by how quickly their youth turned to the stuff of kitsch. (Note to children of the ’80s: Nostalgia: It’s not just for boomers anymore.)

As their age-appropriate pals, the annoying nesters Fletcher and Marina (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia) keep reminding them, if they don’t have a baby NOW, they will be forever out of track with the zeitgeist of their generation. Since they are not sure they even want to have kids, they decide to give being trendy a try.

Unfortunately, reality catches up with them eventually in the form of arthritis the inability to bust a move, and the rueful realization that ambitious people only make friends with you to give themselves a leg up on the ladder to everything they pretend to despise.

Stiller is the perfect delivery system for Baumbach’s dark and dry humor, and Driver nails the wily charisma of a savvy and pragmatic generation that regards selling out as the cost of doing business. Driver inhabits the role so fully, you completely forget about his breakthrough performance as the Asperger’s-suffering boyfriend on “Girls.”

Together they make a wonderfully offbeat duo, whether trading thoughts on music (Jamie digs “The Eye of the Tiger,” while Josh remembers “when that song was just considered bad”) or biking through Brooklyn (until Josh puts his back out).

Baumbach, who also teamed up with Stiller on “Greenberg,” cleverly exposes the elasticity of identities across generations. If Jamie discards notions of truth and authenticity because that’s who millennials are, then maybe Josh’s own commitment to his idealism is just another emblem of his Gen-Xness. Maybe values and beliefs change as quickly as fashions and fads.

Everyone in the perfectly cast ensemble strikes the right mashup of sarcasm and real feeling. Dizzia (who was so radiant in “Eurydice” and “In the Next Room” at Berkeley Rep) is particularly witty as a die-hard member of the mommy mafia who can’t be friends with someone who doesn’t have kids. Charles Grodin is also a delight as Cordelia’s legendary documentarian father. There’s even a clever generational juxtaposition in the casting of two music icons. The star of Josh’s documentary is Peter Yarrow of the ’60s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary; Adam Horovitz is the former lead of the ’80s hip-hop band the Beastie Boys.

Seyfried is the only weak link. She’s too sweet, without the irony and edge that a bohemian chick like Darby, who said her wedding vows in an empty water tower in Harlem, demands.

For such a cathartic comedy, the ending smarts a bit, but in a satisfying manner. Josh and Cordelia gawk at an iPhone-wielding toddler and realize that if they do have a child, it too, like the 20-somethings that bedevil them, will belong to a tribe they can never truly understand.

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