“While We’re Young” fails to deliver on its promise

by Andrew Kingsley | 4/26/15 5:33pm

Most of us have fond memories of a Blue Steel-miened, vacuously heroic Ben Stiller from “Zoolander” (2001), spraying gasoline and successfully turning left with youthful euphoria, or even the crusty yet playful night watchman in the “Night at the Museum” series. Noah Baumbach’s latest romcom “While We’re Young” (2014), however, captures a verisimilar Stiller, around 50, succumbing to mid-life crises and arthritis, with nostalgic eyes for his past in a present without pity for the aging.

A struggling documentarian, Josh (Stiller) is a Woody Allen nebbish-type, a neurotic bookworm on flight mode from a world surely out to get him. Caught between high art and selling out, Josh is mired by his indecisiveness, unable to complete his documentary project 10 years in the making. On top of this, he remains childless and complacently married to his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), while failing to live up to the expectations of his father-in-law (Charles Grodin) — a preeminent documentarian. In severe need of some life support, a sycophantic student, Jamie (Adam Driver), falls serendipitously into his lap.

Like caricatures, Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) make hipsters look like Ugg-wearing gluten worshippers, with their massive vinyl collection, pet rooster and homemade ice cream business. They’re the type of people who do not immediately jump to their iPhones to look up a bit of info and enjoy the blissful void of ignorance. They have channeled Zoolander’s joie de vivre into a life constructed of thrift store and yard sale wares, and Josh desperately wants that past back.

Soon, Josh and Cornelia transport themselves from their middle-age dystopia into Jamie’s world of hallucinatory drugs and hip-hop classes, to the dismay of their frumpy, you-don’t-get-us friends. They juice cleanse their lives of old styles, concerns and friendships and welcome the vicissitudes of New York City. But like a bad plastic surgery, their lifestyle face-lift makes them freakishly engrossing and amusing, such as Josh in a fedora and injuring his back while riding a bike. They become yes-men, opening their doors to life, which were previously barricaded by self-doubt and conformity — Josh even agrees to help Jamie with his own documentary.

But this isn’t a screwball comedy, and the “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) mandolin music signals imminent couple collapse. It becomes apparent that Jamie is a manipulative upstart, using Josh to get to Cornelia’s father, a wealthy producer with investor connections. What follows is a more self-pitying “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993) where Josh slowly uncovers Jamie’s schemes to the detriment of his marriage and career. This self-destruction is mostly pathetic, even didactic, and it lacks the wit and commentary of the rest of the film. It’s like Baumbach could only milk an hour out of the fountain of youth plot and then added a cynical thread about aggressive Generation Y’s who sell themselves out to fame.

Like a lighter “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966) where the power dynamics are switched to the youngsters and the social bite is weaker, “While We’re Young” enjoys its fun and games, but when it tries to grow up at the end, it becomes an angsty teenager kicking and screaming. Baumbach is the closest we have to a vintage Woody Allen — in college, Baumbach even went through an Allen phase — and he really captures the absurdities and biting wit of Allen’s schlemiel, middle-age humor for the first two-thirds. But Stiller’s meltdown, and the cloying bowtie of Josh and Cornelia learning their lesson, feel incongruent and moralistic — just as forced as Josh’s fedora.

Rating: 6/10

“While We’re Young” is playing at The Nugget at 1:50 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekends and 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. during the week.