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'While We're Young' is skimpy in its female characterizations

The newest film by writer-director Noah Baumbach has his usual strengths like sharp urban insights and brainy comedy. But it also has a visual style that's serviceable at best.

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Josh (Ben Stiller) weaves through life like a perpetual grad student in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s ‘While We’re Young.’

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Although he has his own distinctive style and humor, writer-director Noah Baumbach inevitably, and not altogether wrongly, draws comparison with Woody Allen, his much older confrere in documenting the mishaps of whiny white bourgeois New Yorkers. His latest film, “While We’re Young,” is an extension, temperamentally if not altogether thematically, of such earlier films of his as “The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg,” and “Frances Ha.”

The film has his usual strengths: sharp urban insights, brainy comedy, moments of inspired high exasperation. It also shares a few of his faults: an unwillingness to get really down and dirty with his people and a visual style that’s serviceable at best. Unusual for him, it also shows a skimpiness in its female characterizations.

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Josh (Ben Stiller) is a struggling documentary filmmaker married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a sometime documentary producer whose father, Leslie (Charles Grodin), is a legend in the field. Childless after enduring several miscarriages, the couple is in Generation X limbo, chafing at their lives of diminished expectation. 

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Wearying of their longtime friends Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia), who are preoccupied nonstop with their new baby, Josh and Cornelia find themselves happily ensnared in a new friendship with a Millennial couple in their mid-20s:` Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring documentarian who seeks Josh out at a lecture and proceeds to flatter him mercilessly, and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who makes – in a perfect Baumbach touch – artisanal ice cream.

This young couple seem to live life exactly as they want to, and for them, that means turning back the clock. They opt for vinyl records and VHS tapes, disdain Facebook, use manual typewriters, and ride bicycles to get around. They said their wedding vows “in an empty water tower in Harlem.”

All this retro-hipness mightily impresses Josh and Cornelia. The foursome attend a guru’s self-enlightenment session, where Josh, drinking some awful potion, gets mightily sick – but he’s self-actualizing, so it’s OK. Cornelia attends a hip-hop dance class with Darby and feels not so old anymore. Josh, smitten with Jamie’s arrant youthfulness, goes bike riding with him despite his encroaching arthritis. Even more telling: He buys a narrow-brimmed fedora that he thinks is very Millennial but instead makes him look like a racetrack bookie.

If Josh had more of a life, or a career, his Fountain of Youth aspirations would be more touching than they are. As it is, he is often the (gentle) butt of most of the movie’s jokes. Baumbach sympathizes with Josh’s moony nostalgia for his bygone years, but he also makes him the moviemaker equivalent of a perpetual grad student: For seven years he’s been working on a documentary on “power in America” that runs more than six hours. (His famous father-in-law views a rough cut and gently pronounces it “seven hours too long.”) The film’s centerpiece is a pretentious intellectual underplayed to the point of a whisper by none other than Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary). 

Meanwhile, Jamie has taken up his own documentary project, which inevitably intersects with Josh’s and causes a rift in the bromance. The split is intended to be symbolic – generational. But to me it seemed more like a garden-variety professional spat. At least Josh is given the luxury of having a tantrum. Cornelia, about whom we learn little, is essentially décor. 

Darby doesn’t fare much better. In this movie about the waywardness of age and circumstance, it’s the men who have all the juices. This deficiency is not, alas, unusual in Hollywood movies, but Baumbach doesn’t make Hollywood movies, and in the past he has always been generous with his female characters. Very odd.

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By rigging it so that Josh and Cornelia have uninvigorating lives and careers, Baumbach makes it easy to dramatize their generational divide. Like his couple, he may be too enamored of his Millennials to notice that they, too, beneath all the urban hipsterism, aren’t exactly living the good life. Grade: B (Rated R for language.)