The generation gap, while not a necessarily bad idea to explore, is a very nebulous concept, so trying to make an entire film center around it thematically can often feel like a simple repeat of information and ideologies that countless other, often better stories have given us many times before. In the case of While We're Young, I feel like writer and director Noah Baumbach really suffers from this, as, in this modern time, we are certainly not lacking in comedies in which an old person fails to understand how computers work. This style of humor is essentially a part of the modern world's lexicon at this point. The film ultimately just meanders too much for its own good.
While We're Young tells the story of a documentarian, played by Ben Stiller, who, along with his wife, Naomi Watts, is in the middle of a frustrating mid-life crisis. They are in their forties and have just met a young married couple who themselves make documentaries but live much different lives that make Stiller and Watts reach a realization that they aren't young anymore. While this is not at all a bad set-up for the kind of thoughtful comedy that Baumbach is known for making, the issue comes from the heartlessly shallow depictions of people, the total black and white of old and young that he adopts for this film. "Old" people are all boring prudes and "young" people are all vapid hipsters. There isn't any nuance in this philosophy, which makes me wonder why, after the beautifully crafted story of lost youth in his previous film, Frances Ha, Baumbach felt any kind of need to make this movie at all; he already made everything interesting about this movie just a few years ago in a much better form, so what is this movie for?
I suppose it could be easily argued that it's not about a message as much as it is the characters, the writer's true strength, but that leaves me even more perplexed. No characters in this film are at all believably written, switching between caricatures in seemingly every scene. The best example of this would probably be in Jamie, the young man who often acts as a simple antithesis for Josh. This character, by the end, is not portrayed to have any real emotions, and, while one may say that that was intentionally done as a way of portraying the insincerity of modern youth, I never got to know him as a character because of this. He is nothing more than a symbol, but the symbol is too simple to warrant such a blatant exclusion of depth from his personality. Even worse is his wife, Darby, who is written for no purpose other than to be a plot device. She is Jamie's wife, and that is all I can say about her at all.
I did laugh in this movie, which, this being a comedy, was the intention, but I feel like I was laughing in spite of myself. These are all jokes that would feel more at home in a network sitcom than the thoughtful indie comedy that the director is known for. Ben Stiller gets confused and can't use his laptop correctly; Naomi Watts goes to a dance class not knowing that it is, in fact, a hip-hop dance class; and a character says something intelligent only for the idiot character opposite him to not understand it at all. These aren't jokes with any kind of observations or points. It's just another part of the film that leaves me confused about its intent, wondering where it's going until it finally ends. Once it does, however, I still don't know. It just keeps meandering around these points with no purpose.
Perhaps I am being too harsh, but I don't think there's much justification for these flaws. Yes, there is a lot of good in this film; the acting, particularly with Ben Stiller, is very human and engrossing, but it exists entirely in characters written without any of these traits. The comedy is effective but empty. The message is there, but it's too simple to build the movie. It's a film that just shows Noah Baumbach taking a step backwards, plagued by the knowledge that it could have been so much better.