Ben Stiller knows how to play impotent rage. Many of his characters seem to be wired narcissists with anger management problems. In one way, the character of Josh Srebnik whom he plays in Noah Baumbach’s WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (2014) seems like an older and slightly wiser version of Mel Coplin, the adoptee searching for his biological parents in David O. Russell’s FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996). Picking out the Stiller roles with a similar emotional palette is easy, but it isn’t fair to do so without acknowledging how his performances are becoming nuanced and deeper as he progresses through his career.
In GREENBERG (2010), also directed by Baumbach, he plays the title character who has never found his way in life, feels constantly misunderstood, is filled with anxieties and is threatened by the needs of others. This flawed man, who would be hard to deal with in actuality, is beautifully portrayed by Stiller. Josh Srebnik, by comparison, is more socially adept than Greenberg, but as the movie rolls on, his multiple layers of insecurity become evident. His identity is a work in progress. He second-guesses himself constantly and he is about to go through a journey of self-discovery that could potentially topple his career and marriage.
Josh is married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts). He is a film director and she is a producer. She works on projects with her father Leslie (Charles Grodin) who, like Josh, is an independent documentarian. One day, after speaking to a college class about his films, Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) two young fans of his work, Jamie has even taken the trouble to buy a copy of one of Josh’s oldest documentaries on VHS. From this beginning, a friendship develops between the twenty-something Jamie and Darby and the forty-something Josh and Cornelia. The older couple is childless. Cornelia says she is okay with this. They affirm to each other the great life they lead as a couple with creative jobs living in New York. Meeting Jamie and Darby disturbs this equilibrium as they are reminded of how they used to be. The younger couple’s passion for life and each other, makes Cornelia and Josh question their own choices. Josh is hardest hit. He has a combination mid-life crisis and non-sexual crush on Jamie. Everything Josh finds difficult, especially filmmaking, comes to Josh with amazing ease.
Baumbach has written a comedy about the discontent of middle age. Although Cornelia and Josh are not mired in a mortgage nor the minutiae of raising a family, a blink-of-an-eye ago, they were Jamie and Darby. The mid-40s has crept up on them and they don’t know what to do next. Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver are perfect as the arty youngsters. Naomi Watts brings forth some of the comic sensibility she revealed in ST VINCENT (2014) and Stiller is right on the money with Josh. He shows more vulnerability here than we are used to seeing and it’s welcome. Charles Grodin is somewhat underused, but has at least one good scene with Stiller.
WHILE WE’RE YOUNG comes a bit unstuck at the end, but for most of its 97 minutes it is a sharply funny look at our expectations of age and self-knowledge. (7/10)