TIFF 2014: While We're Young Review

Ben Stiller's newest comedy is a hilarious send up of Hipster culture.

Hipsters: you love to hate them and hate to love them. These uber-chic, urban-dwelling, subclass of twenty-somethings are usually defined by their originality through unoriginality, absurd style of fashion, "meta" sense of humor, and pop culture-referencing like there is no tomorrow. Hipsters' unabashed preciousness and self-awareness rub many the wrong way to the point where anything with the slightest whiff of Hipster-ism is like presenting garlic to vampires, but for those with enough patience to swallow the twee self-indulgence prevalent in all hipster culture, often there is something of substance beneath all the excessive posturing. Case in point, director Noah Baumbach. Whether Baumbach regards himself as a hipster or not, Baumbach, along with his friend and sometimes writing partner Wes Anderson, are associated with cinematic Hipster-ism. This makes Baumbach's newest feature, While We're Young, a very interesting film indeed, for the movie is essentially a satire of Hipster culture. Baumbach's film takes down all the phony pretentiousness of the youth subculture, but the director does so in a way that still recognizes the contributions of Hipster culture and allows for the fact that when we're young, we are all kind of jerks. While We're Young stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a middle-aged couple who have lost passion for life and for each other. Stiller is a frustrated documentarian who has been working on the same documentary for ten years. Watts is his wife who produces documentaries (but not Stiller's films, at his insistence) and is quickly losing patience with her husband's lack of productivity. Both feel enormous pressure from friends and society to have kids as the couple realize their chance at having children is quickly slipping away. Their existential ennui seems like an inescapable destiny until one day, Stiller happens upon a peppy Hipster couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) at one of his lectures. The couple confesses to be big fans of Stiller's obscure documentaries and after a friendly lunch, Stiller feels the need to introduce the young couple to his wife. After some initial hesitation, Watts quickly warms up to the care-free youngsters herself and before they know it, Stiller and Watts find themselves amongst young Hipster couples at bizarre events like a "spiritual", drug-induced hallucinatory cleansing where you trip out to ancient Egyptian imagery and vomit all your negative vibes into a chamber pot. At first, the injection of youth into their lives gives Stiller and Watts' relationship the fresh energy that it needs. As the couples get to know one another better though, the younger couple turns out not to be as magnanimous as they first appeared. Driver's character in particular, who is an aspiring documentarian himself, is much more ambitious and manipulative than he lets on, although no one recognizes this at first except for an increasingly frustrated Ben Stiller.
What's interesting about the film is its balanced critique of Hipsters and their faux c'est la vie lifestyle. While the film doesn't hesitate to lambast the more ridiculous eccentricities of Hipsterdom, Baumbach's critique is never cruel. In fact, the film celebrates much of what Hipster culture celebrates, but what the film does excoriate is a certain lack of sincerity in character. Particularly in the third act of the film, While We're Young is also very critical of the youth's tendency towards short-cuts and end results without the slightest respect for the process of things themselves. However, it's not just a one-way "kids these days" rant, for even though the relationship between the middle-aged and younger couples is formed under somewhat false pretenses, the film makes it clear that Stiller and Watts' characters do learn valuable lessons from the younger couple. Stuck in a rut and too obsessed with where they should be in their life according to society's standards, Driver and Seyfried's nonchalant approach to life illustrates to the middle-aged couple just how rigid and uninspired their own lives have become. While attending drug-fueled religious ceremonies might be a bit extreme, Stiller and Watts' misadventures with their immature counterparts allows them to reexamine their lives and rediscover why they loved each other in the first place. All these thematic concerns though belies the fact of just how funny While We're Young is. While Baumbach's previous work has always been comedic, his films have been the type of comedy that comes with qualifications. Movies such as The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha are undoubtedly comedies (and very well written comedies) for those with a sophisticated sense of humor, but their charm and wit would most likely escape your average cinemagoer. However, regardless of how you feel about Baumbach's previous work, chances are you will laugh at While We're Young. The film is easily the broadest comedy in Baumbach's oeuvre, and while there are still plenty of jokes aimed at those who have enjoyed his previous work, While We're Young is accessible to pretty much anyone. In fact, one weakness of the film is how much the movie plays to its broader comedic elements. While moments parodying Hipsters and the hard facts of growing older for the middle-aged are practically pitch perfect, the more low-brow scenes of the film (such as the vomit party) take away from tone and tempo established in the rest of the film. It's not that the broadly comedic moments aren't funny in their own right, but they simply detract from the more searing comedy that pervades the rest of the film.
Of course, a film as much about relationships and characters as While We're Young is would be dead in the water without the cast to pull it off, and luckily everyone here is up to task. Stiller expertly plays the frustrated protagonist that he has so carefully perfected over the years. It's not a stretch in skill by any imagination, but then again it doesn't need to be. The two standouts of the cast though are Adam Driver and Naomi Watts. Driver has a sort of awkward charisma that makes the evolving iterations of his character in the film truly flawless, while Watts, not exactly known for her comedic skills, proves surprisingly apt with her timing and ability to humiliate herself for the sake of the film. Given its subject matter, director, and cast, it's not likely that While We're Young will be anything more than a niche success that most of Baumbach's films have been in the past. However, whatever you may feel about Hipsters, Baumbach, or indie comedies, whenever this film makes it to a theater near you, do yourself a favor, get out of your comfort zone, and give this film a chance. You just may be pleasantly surprised.
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A film fanatic at a very young age, starting with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies and gradually moving up to more sophisticated fare, at around the age of ten he became inexplicably obsessed with all things Oscar. With the incredibly trivial power of being able to chronologically name every Best Picture winner from memory, his lifelong goal is to see every Oscar nominated film, in every major category, in the history of the Academy Awards.