Noah Baumbach's While We're Young goes beyond the usual tired hipster stereotypes

A Brooklyn-based comedy that's more than just jokes about avocado and almond-milk sorbet.

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While We’re Young is a comedy about a Brooklyn couple in their forties, Josh and Cornelia, played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, who become entranced by another couple, 15 or 20 years their junior. The youngsters, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), are personifications of hipsterdom who would not have looked out of place in the London lampooned by Nathan Barley ten years ago. The extensive vinyl collection, the thrift-shop clothes, the wilful infantilism, the self-consciously skittish energy. “I love how in the moment you guys are!” says Josh. “Jamie’s always moving,” says Darby. “You should see him on rollerskates!”

Darby makes avocado and almond-milk sorbet. They have books, not e-readers, and shun Google during impromptu parlour games (“That’s too easy!”). The characterisation feels slightly tired. Could this be because the project has been around the block a few times? It was ready to roll on several occasions, with various different casting permutations (James Franco, Cate Blanchett and Greta Gerwig were all attached at one time or another), before being stymied by financing or scheduling problems. Meanwhile, parodying hipsters became one of those sports in which pretty much anyone who wanted to could achieve a passable level of competence. Not unlike, say, badminton.

Luckily these caricatures aren’t really the point of the film. You would hope so, too, given that it is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, who was responsible for two of the most intelligent and nuanced US movies of the past five years—Greenberg and Frances Ha. Once he has had his fun showing Stiller buying an undesized trilby and pulling a muscle riding a bicycle through Brooklyn, or Watts taking hip-hop dance classes, Baumbach moves on instead to ask what motivates Josh and Cornelia’s adulation and what lies beneath the apparent vivacity of Jamie and Darby. In each case the answer is slightly more complicated than it might appear. Sure, the hipsters might seem cool but why don’t they ever pick up the bill? An easygoing demeanour can be strategic, even lucrative, when it gets you off paying for meals.

The move away from the amorphousness of those earlier, sophisticated films, and toward a formulaic comedy of life lessons, is not entirely to be regretted. As usual, Baumbach’s writing is alert to the lies people tell themselves to avoid combusting spontaneously in a flaming ball of self-loathing. “The point is we have the freedom,” Josh tells Cornelia as they discuss the free time that childlessness affords them. “What we do with it isn’t that important.” The screenplay is good also on the transformation by twentysomethings of low culture into unironic markers of quality, a phenomenon that has not happened until now. “I remember when this song was considered bad,” says Josh, with wonder in his eyes, when Jamie plays Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” It would have been more satisfying if the older characters in the movie didn’t ultimately represent an enduring authenticity but it’s still worth it to hear Josh’s friend tell him bluntly: “You’re an old man with a hat.”

My favourite scene in the movie takes place when Josh, a blocked and uncommercial documentary filmmaker who has been toiling for a decade on the same project, goes to meet Hedge Fund Dave, played by Ryan Serhant, to whom he is pitching his movie in the hope of raising funding. You could imagine how the scene might play out in a Woody Allen film (and While We’re Young is very Woody Allen in the way it pits old against young, wisdom against naivety). Josh would be shown as the integrity-driven artist while the prospective financier would be a philistine with a bank account where his soul should be. But it doesn’t play out that way. Both men are insufferable but for different reasons. Josh is barricaded behind his preconceptions, his shame at having to come begging for funding, his feelings of superiority. Dave is simply a doofus. Told by Josh that he has 100 hours of footage, Dave gasps: “The movie is 100 hours long?”

But it is Dave who comes off better in the honesty of his responses—his eyes first glazing over and then drifting irresistibly toward the screen of his mobile phone as Josh blathers on. Baumbach has found comic gold in Serhant, who is a real-estate agent and star of the US reality show Million Dollar Listing New York (no, me neither). His timing and body language, and the dopey inflections in his line readings, are note-perfect. He only gets two scenes (he pops up later being hilariously exuberant at a party) but he’s the zingiest element of the film. It doesn’t really matter whether Serhant decides to build on this acting career or stick with the property market. That pitching scene can still stand as a miniature comic masterclass and a lesson in gentle upstaging. He stills Stiller. He drives Driver off the screen.

While We’re Young is released 3 April.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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