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Ben Stiller, director Noah Baumbach and Adam Driver film "When We Were Young" in New York City, on September 24, 2013.
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“He’s not evil,” 44-year-old Josh Shrebnik (Ben Stiller) says of 20-something Jamie Massey (Adam Driver). “He’s just young.” And “young,” to Josh in Noah Baumbach’s acutely acerbic new comedy While We’re Young, means vaguely alien, suspicious and threatening.

Was Baumbach ever young? In Hollywood, most makers of comedy films keep searching for their inner horny teen; they skinny-dip in the Fountain of Arrested Development. Baumbach, who’s 45 and very much of the New York school (we might say yeshiva) of social comedy, has seemed older than his years ever since he made his first feature, Kicking and Screaming, at 25. Set in a college very like Vassar, which Baumbach attended, the film spritzes a mordant wit that is not so much precocious as prematurely middle-aged.

Kicking and Screaming is populated by recent graduates who can’t rouse themselves to leave school for real life, so they move into what is essentially an old folks’ home for 23-year-olds. One young man already lives deeply in the past: “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory. And I didn’t have a good time.” Another fellow tenderly tells his girlfriend, who’s leaving to study in Prague, that he wishes they were “an old couple,” so he could reach over and kiss her and “you’d be delighted, probably.”

Baumbach’s wizened skepticism could be attributable to his being the son of two revered film critics, Georgia Brown and Jonathan Baumbach. Critics are supposed to stand outside the work they’re appraising; they are taught to make nice distinctions, harsh judgments and sidewise jokes about bad movies. Without buying totally into the parental-influence theory, we can still say that a Noah Baumbach movie male sees all of modern life as an Edward D. Wood Jr. film. In While We’re Young, oldish Josh says that young Jamie has a vast collection of old movie favorites, with Citizen Kane next to The Goonies, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 kids-in-a-cave caper. Hearing this, Josh’s friend Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) asks, “When did The Goonies become a good movie?”

Most critics agree that Baumbach makes good movies: portraits of psychological discomfort painted from the inside—but funny, kind of, like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” turned upside down into a laugh, or maybe a clown’s rictus. Mr. Jealousy, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg and Frances Ha all have their acolytes. And every 10 years Baumbach turns out a picture that the most discerning reviewer (yours truly) thinks is beyond terrific. 1995: Kicking and Screaming. 2005: The Squid and the Whale. 2015: While We’re Young, which expands this weekend into real movie theaters after two weeks in art-house showcases.

Even for mainstream audiences, who have rarely cottoned to the Baumbach oeuvre, While We’re Young is an easy sit, full of observations, home truths and characters worth both getting over and rooting for. Absent for the most part is the writer-director’s mean streak, which can curdle his satire into caricature and misanthropy. Baumbach, when pressed, acknowledges that this is “my most accessible” film, and “the happiest I get.

Josh, a documentary filmmaker who’s been working for a decade on a followup to his well-received Power Elite, might describe himself as non-miserable. He and his perkier wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a doc producer, have navigated a long-term marriage without kids. Suddenly that seems not quite enough, when their co-40s friends Fletcher and Marina (Maria Dizzia) have their first child. Josh and Cornelia tried but failed; now they wonder if they made the best use of their time—if they swerved away from significant adventure and detoured into the rut of routine. Josh, a master at rationalizing failure, says of their stasis, “Maybe the point is, we have the freedom. What we do with it isn’t that important.”

In today’s hipster New York, Josh is an early-onset codger—a kind of Forrest Grump. He needs a dose of emotional Viagra, and finds it in the charms of Jamie, who crashes a class Josh teaches and says he loved Power Elite. Jamie makes little video docs; his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) makes ice cream. What they’re best at is making friends, and the usually reclusive Josh is their latest catch. A lover of skateboarding, fedoras and schmoozing, Jamie radiates a nerdy good humor that Josh finds as stimulating as the young man’s professed admiration of Josh’s early work.

Voilà! Josh feels a youthful zest he probably missed back when he was actually young. He and Cornelia join Jamie and Darby at a weekend retreat where a guru invites them to drink a mystic Peruvian rum, ayahuasca, and vomit up their demons. (Which may not be so kooky: a study cited in this week’s Scientific American indicates that ayahuasca may cure depression.) And like a No. 1 fan aping his idol, Josh begins skateboarding and wearing a fedora. Does he look tremendously today or just ridiculous? Fletcher, whom Josh has been ignoring in his fascination with Jamie, picks B: “You’re an old man with a young man’s hat.”

In part, Josh and Cornelia are thrilled to be with people whose joie de jeunesse can be sweetly, perversely Luddite. Unable to recall the word for those sugar and almond treats sometimes served in the form of a pig (marzipan), Josh automatically reaches for his smartphone when Jamie says, “Let’s try to remember it.” A few moments later, when Josh asks if he can Google the word now, Jamie demurs: “Let’s just not know what it is.” The young couple also loves antique pop culture. As Cornelia says, “Their apartment is full of everything we once threw out”—vinyl albums and VHS movie tapes—”but it looks so good the way they have it.” Sure it does. Because they’re young.

Jamie and Darby could be the cool kids Josh and Cornelia never had. Or perhaps they’re the young lovers that middle-aged marrieds take to prove they’ve still got it. As Darby tells Josh, in one of the movie’s dangerous flirtations, “You’re like a hot dad. Without children.” And, no question, Josh is more than a little in love with Jamie and louche vitality he represents. When Jamie invites him to collaborate on his new documentary about a high-school friend who had a scarred life as a soldier in Afghanistan, Josh, who says he’s “been trained to hoard credit,” eagerly comes on as co-director.

As fascinating as Josh finds the golden couple he’s befriended, that’s how much he resents one man of an earlier generation: Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a cinéma vérité documentarian and Cornelia’s father. Gracious enough to help Josh find funding to finish his film, Leslie is also a fearless critic of the rough cut, saying, “You just showed me a six-and-a-half-hour film that feels like it’s seven hours too long.” (Leslie does, however, hit it off immediately with Jamie and become his patron.) What Josh shares with Leslie is an acute eye for the duplicities that can creep into documentaries—movies that are supposed to tell the truth. Doing his own research on Jamie’s Afghan-veteran doc, Josh finds that the story has been tweaked, and that he’s been conned by Jamie. He realizes too late that he should beware geeks bearing grifts.

Indie scuttlebutt, from Sam Adams on Criticwire and Richard Brody in The New Yorker, suggests that Jamie may bear a close resemblance to Joe Swanberg, a wildly prolific mumblecore auteur who made several films with Baumbach’s current partner, actress-director Greta Gerwig (LOL, Nights and Weekends, Hannah Takes the Stairs)—and whose wife Kris makes ice cream! Extend the reel-to-real analogy, and Cornelia might match up with Baumbach’s ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, the daughter of actor Vic Morrow and screenwriter Barbara Turner (the biopics Pollock and Hemingway & Gellhorn). Leigh provided the story for Greenberg, which introduced Baumbach to Gerwig; and Gerwig cowrote Francs Ha and stars in his next film, Mistress America. Showbiz lives can be complicated.

Baumbach denies any connection between Jamie and Swanberg, and even if there is one, he’s welcome to build characters on people he knows. Still, it’s curious that — SPOILER ALERT — Jamie is revealed as unprincipled because he appropriates people and elements from other sources and applies them to his documentary. In the big showdown, he tells Josh, “If I hear a song I like, or a story, it’s mine to use.” Josh: “That’s not sharing, Jamie. That’s stealing.” Jamie: “That’s old-man talk.” Josh: “I am an old man.” The light bulb has finally switched on. Rather than worrying about growing old, Josh should maybe grow up first, reconcile with Cornelia and think about being somebody’s parent instead of Jamie’s senior playmate. That’s very mature. But the question remains whether Baumbach is bending Josh’s rule on the filmmaker’s code. Is he sharing Swanberg’s character or stealing it? END SPOILER ALERT.

Whether fiction of film à clef, While We’re Young has the symmetry of a Restoration comedy, in which characters are attracted to their opposites, enjoy a social or erotic escapade and then reassemble with their natural partners, wiser and of course older. Josh and Jamie have separate complimentary “humors”—foibles—brought to complex life by Stiller, as the most appealing in his extensive gallery of schlemiels, and Driver, who is as seductive to the movie audience as he is to Josh. In a movie that is less couples comedy than a bromance, Watts and Seyfried have less to do, but they do it well, standing by and occasionally standing up to their men. Horovitz, the ex-Beastie Boy, carries the burden of being the film’s crabby conscience—its Noah Baumbach.

A word to mall audiences: relax and enjoy While We’re Young. Baumbach’s “most accessible” movie is also his sharpest and most buoyant outing since The Squid and the Whale. We promise you’ll have a lovely time, smiling through Josh’s pain. At the end you can imagine him reaching over, like the young man who dreams of being old in Kicking and Screaming, and giving Cornelia a kiss. She’d be delighted, probably.

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