For about an hour, “While We’re Young” was one of the most exhilarating times I’ve had at the movies in many a month. It played like razor-sharp Woody Allen in his prime.
The last half-hour or so: not so much. What had been a sly and flat-out funny social satire takes a nosedive and spirals into an implausible farce in which one central character becomes a cartoon caricature, and another takes a stance completely at odds with everything we’ve come to know about him until that point.
Still. Writer-director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg,” “Margot at the Wedding”) is a master at creating smart, cynical, sometimes bitter characters who wield the language like a sabre, whether it’s to inflict their judgment upon others or to use it to defend and deny their own shortcomings.
In “While We’re Young,” Baumbach gives us two thoroughly likable yet unlikable couples. Not sure if I liked disliking them or disliked liking them, but there you have it.
Ben Stiller is Josh and Naomi Watts is Cornelia, married New Yorkers in their 40s who feel increasingly out of touch with their age-peer friends because everyone else has recently started a family.
Josh is a documentary filmmaker who has been laboring for nearly a decade on a six-hour examination of “power in America,” among other things. (From what we see of the interviews Josh is conducting and the footage he shows to others, it’s even more dreadful than it sounds.)
Cornelia has worked on films herself. Her father Leslie (Charles Grodin, excellent) is a legendary, old-school documentarian who employed the medium to tell remarkable stories and effect real change. Little wonder Leslie and Josh are barely on speaking terms, given Leslie’s status as a giant and Josh’s status as, well, not a giant.
Josh and Cornelia spend an inordinate amount of time convincing themselves their friends are stuck in Preschool Parent Hell, while they’re free to do anything they want, whenever they want! (This usually involves nothing more adventurous than opening a bottle of wine and ordering in before retiring to bed early.)
Their middle-aged malaise is happily shattered when they meet and become friends with the hippest millennials in all of Brooklyn: Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring filmmaker who says he’s a huge fan of Josh’s earlier work, and his free spirit wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who makes artisanal ice cream.
It’s a toss-up as to which couple is more unbearably precious and pretentious. I’d go with the twentysomethings, whose every move, whether it’s refusing to look up something on Google because it’s cooler to “just not know,” partaking in a ridiculous ayahuasca ceremony that’s just an excuse to get supremely high, or embracing “street beach” parties and hip-hop workout classes, just reeks of self-conscious, faux cool.
“We said our vows in an empty water tower in Harlem,” Jamie says. How could you be around somebody like that and not be in perpetual eye-roll mode?
That Josh and Cornelia so readily embrace this fatuous couple 20 years their junior and so quickly adopt the trappings of their lifestyle (Josh even starts dressing like Jamie) tells you a lot about their own immature, aging Generation X’er mindset.
Baumbach fashions a wickedly funny dark comedy out of these four characters. Josh and Cornelia are addicted to technology, yet Jamie and Darby embrace vinyl records, VHS movies and typewriters. Josh and Cornelia are obsessed with material things; Jamie and Darby claim otherwise.
But then the ground beneath Josh begins to rumble ever so slightly, and then more so, and then more so, until he sees the light about what’s really happening. The last act of “While We’re Young” is primarily about Josh’s mad quest to prove he’s right about Jamie on a number of different levels. And while Josh has the truth on his side, there’s something pathetic about a guy nearing 50 who’s so hell-bent on making a point about someone half his age, whom he never should have allowed to become such a central figure in his world.
Stiller is a veteran and versatile actor, as comfortable as just about anyone onscreen. He’s terrific here playing a character who tests our patience with his selfishness and his pettiness and his lack of self-awareness, even as he claims to be self-aware. He’s the kind of guy who, even when he’s in the right, comes across as a sore winner.
Adam Driver (“Girls”) is an acquired taste. I think he has big talent, though his choices sometimes come across as a little too mannered. Watts and Seyfried deliver good work, though their characters aren’t as deeply drawn as their male counterparts.
If “While We’re Young” hadn’t gone quite so broad at the finish line, it would be a contender for my favorite movie of the still-young year. Even so, it’s a rare treat in 2015 to see a film with its roots in the great, dialogue-driven character studies of the 1970s.
A24 presents a film written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Running time: 94 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opens Friday at local theaters.