'While We're Young' doesn't take any chances, which makes it pretty much pointless

'While We're Young' doesn't take any chances, which makes it pretty much pointless

W hile We're Young centers on middle-aged married couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), both unfulfilled in their own way but ostensibly happy together. She tried to have a baby and couldn't. He's a failed documentary filmmaker living in his father-in-law's (Charles Grodin) shadow. They're both at that age (mid-40s) in which "the things that don't happen until you're old" start to happen. They have their freedom, but don't take advantage of it. They probably secretly resent one another for their unhappiness. This is a marriage in a funk.

Enter aspiring filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who makes ice cream. They're both 25 and ironically retro, preferring VHS tapes, typewriters and other old-school accouterments to their modern counterparts. They think it's better and makes them more "free" and "in the moment." In reality it's artsy-pretentious hippie nonsense enacted in a desperate attempt to tell the world they're bohemian. In one scene Jamie says he's "pathologically happy," which is damn easy when you're delusional about the real world around you. Jamie also wears a fedora, which automatically qualifies him as a douchebag.

The problem with Jamie being this obnoxious, sure of himself and unlikable is that we need to believe Josh would be enamored enough with Jamie for them to become best friends, because that's what happens. Sure, Jamie provides Josh a different way of looking at the world, but the man-crush Josh develops feels forced rather than organic. For this to work, more of Josh's discontentedness needs to be presented earlier so we can understand why he would see Jamie as a conduit to happiness.

Of course the relationship evolves, things change and some people aren't what they seem. This is all fine and welcome, as it leads to a better final third than what the first two thirds lead us to expect. But it's too little too late, and worse, whatever it is writer-director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg) is trying to say about traditional versus modern values, he doesn't say with conviction. He tackles issues of credibility, friendship, insecurity, selfishness and more in a way that is deliberately philosophical rather than practical, meaning he's essentially throwing it out there saying "here it is!" without bothering to comment on it as positive or negative.

And you know what? That's weak. If he's going to take a safe route in the old versus new debate, then he should be critical of both sides. That way all the flaws are exposed and people can judge for themselves, because the truth is this: Where you are in life will determine the couple in the film you relate to the most, which by extension may reflect the value system you agree with. So if Baumbach is evenly critical of both sides he will not offend potential viewers of any age.

The film is designed to get the viewer to look inward in an attempt to define himself in this crazy world we live in, but this is key: Many will not bother because they haven't been sufficiently prompted to do so. This is like telling someone to have deep thoughts, but providing nothing to inspire those thoughts.

While We're Young could and should have done more with its subject matter by being sharper and less kind to our social woes. Playing it safe doesn't do the characters or the film any favors.


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