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Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha,” “Greenberg”) examines the concept of youth in “While We’re Young” with a kind of clinical detachment. There’s no glorifying or romanticizing, and he certainly doesn’t seem too enamored by today’s Bright Young Things.

Not that this comes as a surprise — Baumbach is a low-temperature filmmaker who avoids heated passion and fevered arguments and he doesn’t really care whether you like his characters, or his work. I imagine Baumbach to be the type of party guest who shows up very late, stands against a wall holding a drink and then leaves about 20 minutes later with a girl dressed all in black. The whole time, he has only two expressions — bored or vaguely bemused.

“While We’re Young” does, however, have the distinction of being Baumbach’s most engaging and least condescending film. His trademark ambivalence and half-heartedness is intact but a broad smile occasionally breaks through, like a ray of sunshine on an otherwise chilly day.

While We're Young (Young Adult New York)
Rating
Run Time 97 mins
Language English
Opens JULY 22

Baumbach’s leading man, Ben Stiller (who also starred in “Greenberg”), takes on the role of Josh, a 40-ish documentary moviemaker in Manhattan. Josh has been working on the same project for the past 10 years and has harbored a disillusionment with life for about as long. His wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), meanwhile, has taken a job assisting her father, Leslie (Charles Grodin) — a famous and respected N.Y. documentarist — to supplement their dwindling bank account.

This, needless to say, is the cause of some friction between the couple and does little to endear Josh to his father-in-law. When Josh finally attempts to pull together his documentary — a dry work about an elderly professor mumbling on about profound topics while eating things — it clocks in at 6.5 hours, at which Leslie comments, “That’s seven hours too long.”

Baumbach’s observations of Josh’s midlife crisis becomes a contrast (but not a stark one, because Baumbach doesn’t do “stark”) to the lifestyle of Jamie (Adam Driver), a 25-year-old wannabe film director, who just happens to sail into Josh’s life. Immediately captivated by Jamie, who looks ups to Josh and showers him with compliments, the tired filmmaker thinks he’s found a protege of sorts. Jamie also comes with an attractive young wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who runs a small business making ice cream, and they share their digs with even younger Tipper (Dree Hemingway), who parades around the place in underwear inscribed with the slogan “Some college I didn’t go to.”

All this is strong medicine for Josh, who confesses to Jamie that “before we met I had two emotions left: wistful and disdainful.” Now he eagerly looks forward to their next get-together and convinces the sceptical Cornelia to hang out with them. Cornelia, meanwhile, is taken to a hip-hop class by Darby and finds someone without children she thinks she can relate to.

Even though the younger couple are obsessed with the retro (typewriters, old movies on VHS, board games, etc.) and Josh and Cornelia recall the day when they threw all that away to embrace the digital, it is the older couple that begins to mimic the younger. Josh takes to wearing a hat like Jamie’s and even starts to use millennial phrases. When Jamie puts on “The Eye of the Tiger” — his go-to song when he wants to get motivated — Josh says “I can remember when that was just a bad song,” but a minute later he raises his fist in the air to the music.

But there’s something insincere about Jamie and Darby’s hipster lifestyle. It all seems a bit staged, mainly for Josh’s benefit. Eventually, Baumbach eases the story onto a tarmac of disappointment but for a while Josh and Cornelia feel totally, awesomely rejuvenated. Youth may be wasted on the young but it does work wonders for the middle-aged — even if only fleetingly.

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