While We’re Young: Ben Stiller in Crisis Mode

It might seem premature for filmmaker Noah Baumbach and his screen alter-ego Ben Stiller to be having a mid-life crisis, along with wife Naomi Watts, but the situation is explored with empathy and wit in While We’re Young. Although the finished product is a bit lumpy it still represents an individual voice and point of view, within the framework of a contemporary comedy infused with the Woody Allen-ish flavor of New York City.

Stiller plays a egotistic documentary filmmaker who’s been stalled on his latest project for a decade. His mostly-happy marriage to Watts is shadowed by the fact that they’ve given up on having children after several failed attempts. Now, as their friends become parents, they find themselves marginalized and unable to share experiences with moms and dads their age. Stiller is also keenly aware that he’s never lived up to his potential, all the more so as the son-in-law of a legendary documentarian (nicely played by Charles Grodin).

(Courtesy of A24)

Into his life steps an outgoing young man (Adam Driver) and his wife (Amanda Seyfried) who seem to represent everything he isn’t: glib, assertive, and spontaneous. Driver insinuates himself into Stiller’s life, personally and professionally. Soon Watts catches her husband’s fever as the 40-ish couple make a desperate stab at recapturing their youth.

As writer and director, Baumbach casts a keen eye on the absurdities of urban life as well as the issues facing traditional filmmakers at a time when anyone and everyone can create “media” on the spot. This aspect of the story becomes a bit heavy-handed but is rescued by the humanity in Stiller and Watts’ characterizations; we never lose sight of the fact that they love each other. Stiller’s role is tailor-made and Watts delivers yet another impressive performance—with a lightness of touch that’s rare in comedies these days—as a woman at a crossroads.

Baumbach pokes fun at his characters’ pretensions but allows us to empathize with them at almost every turn, until Stiller goes off the deep end. The filmmaker’s attempt to balance social satire and farce doesn’t always work, but While We’re Young is smart and funny enough to overcome its flaws.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024