Noah Baumbach’s first movie, the post-college comedy Kicking and Screaming, turns twenty this year. In it, the fussy character played by Carlos Jacott is described as “having two moods: antsy and testy.” Josh (Ben Stiller), the central character in Baumbach’s new While We’re Young, would have been graduating college around 1995, and though he doesn’t necessarily resemble the young neurotics of the earlier film, he does suggest their critical self-awareness when he describes his two primary modes, in middle age, as “wistful and disdainful.”
Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) would have been entering kindergarten around the time the Kicking and Screaming kids were set loose upon the real world, which makes them a potentially strange couple-buddy for Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), who have tried to accept their childlessness while adjusting to the fact that their best friends (Elizabeth Reaser and Adam Horowitz) are now parents. When Jamie and Darby turn up at the continuing-ed course Josh teaches in documentary filmmaking, Josh is flattered into friendship with them, energized by their youthful hipsterism—their desire to “make things” (“for about twelve hours, I thought I could make a desk,” Josh notes—enthusiastically, not rueful, about his implied failure). Cornelia is skeptical at first, but goes along on their Bushwick barbecues and subway tunnel walks and shaman retreats.
Baumbach, then, after ably chronicling twentysomething life in Kicking and Frances Ha as well as middle-age fuck-ups in Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, mashes together his areas of expertise into generation-gap comedy.
He sometimes paints Jamie and Darby’s millennial foibles with a broad brush, but the laughs don’t turn cheap, maybe because he has such a sharp eye for cultural exchange. Early in the film, there’s a montage of the fortysomethings grasping at their smartphones and streaming movies intercut with the twentysomethings affecting interest in VHS tapes, typewriters, and vinyl. This sets up a series of intergenerational affectation swaps throughout the film. Jamie and Darby argue against looking up information on their phones; Josh gets a hat and the kind of chunky-framed glasses that were probably not so unusual when he was in his twenties (similarly, Josh on listening to “Eye of the Tiger” to get pumped up at Jamie’s behest: “I remember when this song was just considered bad”). Baumbach also subtly hints the ways that aging hipster types can cling to these signifiers even if they aren’t running off and seeing a shaman; other, more grounded fortysomethings are seen with those thick-framed glasses, too.
It’s all indicative of a gently omnidirectional satire. Though the younger couple begins to look more manipulative as Jamie’s own documentary project comes together, Baumbach doesn’t spare the characters who closer to his age—in some ways, they’re sadder and more desperate. He makes a fruitful running gag out of the fact that Josh’s long-gestating and long-running documentary has become impossible for even its director to describe cogently, variously referred to as “both materialist and intellectual,” having to do with the prison-industrial complex, addressing power structure in society (with detours into Turkish politics), but “really about America.” Baumbach’s devastatingly believable poke at dust-dry docs might conceivably be redirected at his own fiction film, which constructs so many Venn diagrams of affectation, idealism, responsibility, complacency, authenticity and posing that it’s hard to divine a clear thesis. But while the late-movie focus on Josh’s obsession with doc-making ethics (and Jamie’s potential lack thereof) and his relationship with Cornelia’s father (Charles Grodin!) threatens to become Baumbach’s own Turkish Politics, most of While We’re Young isn’t muddled so much as multifaceted: observational rather than didactic.
While We’re Young has been referred to as Baumbach’s most accessible film ever, and it may be, though it’s still plenty knotty and specific. At times, it resembles a smarter version of a Ben Stiller comedy—a dispatch from a world where Stiller’s slow burn has a better showcase than the Fockers series (this intention was more or less confirmed by a Q&A after the film’s Lincoln Center preview, where Baumbach mentioned that, after the atypical Greenberg, he was interested in writing a role for Stiller that plays more directly to his strengths and persona). Indeed, he’s perfect enough in this sort of role to fog memories of him doing a third Night at the Museum just a few months ago. He matches well with both Watts (like Rose Byrne in Neighbors, more game partner than clichéd nag) and Driver (who looks and sounds like kind of a hipster id). Seyfried threatens to become the odd woman out, but she and the screenplay give Darby some layers. Her self-possession in the first half of the film—where she appears to mostly just start conversations, making a declaration, usually about herself, before she leads Cornelia out of frame, or someone else speaks up, or the camera cuts away—turns sharp and even wise as the relationship between the two couples turns complicated.
Baumbach said in his Q&A that he considers the movie more about Josh and Cornelia as a couple than a statement on generational divide, which works fine—though despite a couple of bravura scenes for Watts (two music classes: one for babies, one for hip-hop dancing), Stiller takes up perhaps slightly too much screentime for the movie to feel truly balanced. There’s a similar lack of marital balance in another limited release opening this weekend: Susanne Bier’s Serena, which reunites arguably two of the most popular movie stars of the past couple of years, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. But weirdly, the imbalance doesn’t favor either star; somehow, they both wind up feeling underserved. The movie’s point of view sticks more with Cooper’s George Pemberton, though Lawrence, as his wife Serena, gets both the title role and several scenes of her own, including more of the movie’s big-acting fireworks. Pemberton is a lumber baron who, in the movie’s opening minutes, spies Serena, pursues her on horseback, and marries her, all in a blur that could be dreamy or even efficient but instead feels rushed. Serena maintains a keen interest in the lumber business, which I did not share while watching the movie, as well as a keen interest in the training and keeping of majestic, snake-catching eagles, which I absolutely did share, to the point of wishing Bier had chucked whatever material came from the source novel and focused on Lawrence, fabulous in pale-blonde locks, bending eagles and other animals to her will. But instead she focuses on Pemberton, amidst an overflow of animal imagery and symbolism. No prizes for guessing whether this powerful woman and his male weakness might, you know, lead to his downfall and stuff.
Despite Bier’s use of handheld shots, Serena has an Old Hollywood sort of vibe, the way it dresses up its movie stars, puts them through a wringer of melodrama, and clocks in under two hours. Some of this is pleasing in an old-fashioned sort of way. But much of it feels trapped in a peculiar stasis—hence the void in this onscreen marriage between actors who showed plenty of chemistry in Silver Linings Playbook (this film was shot between their David O. Russell projects, after Playbook but before American Hustle). Bier makes a motif out of overhead shots where Cooper and Lawrence lie together on a bed, looking worried (there’s a particularly lovely, sad one of them on adjacent hospital beds as she receives a blood transfusion); at first these look like moments from an old movie, and then they start to look like photo shoots paying homage to an old movie. It feels neither particularly real nor enchantingly artificial.
Much has been made of the fact that Cooper and Lawrence starred in the two highest-grossing film releases of 2014 and showed non-action bankability in those Russell pictures, not to mention their three Oscar nominations apiece, hasn’t been enough to keep Serena from the kind of cursory theatrical release that typically greets low-wattage sorta-prestige pictures and/or movies just barely avoiding direct-to-video status. This Cooper/Lawrence vehicle is coming in limited release this weekend and really premiered on VOD; another death-of-the-movie-star moment. It is, to be sure, a little odd that no enterprising second-tier distributor thought they could milk these two particular stars for a quick buck. But if anything, the current climate is more likely to score star-laden movies this kind of face-saving theatrical release, staving off the stigma of direct-to-video productions, even if just barely. The stars may well prefer it that way; imagine if a throwback oddity like Serena did go out to 2,000 theaters, putting it in front of way more eyeballs. Cooper and Lawrence will survive a forgettable arthouse release in the prime of their careers—though maybe their onscreen marriage won’t.