Somewhere near the end of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, the title character (played by Ben Stiller) delivers a rant to a roomful of twenty-somethings, telling them “there’s a confidence in you guys that’s horrifying.” The horrifying confidence of twenty-somethings is the focus of Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young, in which Stiller and Naomi Watts play a Brooklyn couple who make the mistake of befriending a pair of free-spirited hipsters played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. If the film starts out as a broadly comic satire about the absurdity of hipster culture (as well as the mysterious allure it holds for those who are beginning to feel no longer relevant), by the end it has become a queasy cautionary tale about the havoc wreaked by the young and inexperienced.
Baumbach spends the first two-thirds of the film skewering all four characters in equal measure. Driver and Seyfried’s Jamie and Darby (he’s a fledgling documentarian; she makes artisanal ice cream) are blithely entitled and unencumbered by responsibility: they drift through their kitschily appointed Williamsburg apartment in a state of blissed-out calm. The joke is that neurosis and insecurity have been bred out of today’s young people, whereas the forty-four-year old Stiller suffers from an anxiety that one suspects dates back to his adolescence. But if Jamie and Darby may be easy targets, so too are Stiller and Watts’ Josh and Cornelia, whose attempts to rekindle the energy of their youth come off as more than a little desperate. (At Jamie’s recommendation, Josh buys a quirky hat and a vintage bike; Cornelia joins a hip-hop class.)
What appears to be an innocent mid-life crisis, however, turns out to be something more sinister, as Josh and Cornelia begin to suspect that they are being taken for a ride by their new “friends.” Underneath Jamie’s goofball persona beats the heart of a calculating opportunist, and Darby reveals herself to be harder and more clear-eyed than she first appears. In the end, the film is less of a satire (who’s more annoying: hipsters in their twenties or wannabe hipsters in their forties?) than a jet-black farce about how friends use and abuse each other.
While We’re Young is both jokier and more mordant than Baumbach’s previous film, Frances Ha, which was styled as an homage to the early films of the most charming of the French New Wave directors, Francois Truffaut. While We’re Young seems to me rather to show the influence of Truffaut’s pricklier New Wave colleague Claude Chabrol, who sought to explore the casually ruthless machinations of the French bourgeoisie. Chabrol’s films are sometimes referred to thrillers, but such a description is slightly misleading; his tone is more sardonic than suspenseful, and he was more interested in probing the subtleties of betrayal and passive-aggression than in spinning elaborate crime scenarios. In While We’re Young, Baumbach shows that he’s similarly wise to the subtle ways in which friendly relationships can turn sour. Its jokes may be broad, but the film leaves a sting.