Review: Ben Stiller and Adam Driver put a stake in hipster culture’s heart in ‘While We’re Young’

While I'm always up for watching a new film by Noah Baumbach, I'm fairly sure I wouldn't want to spend any time in the real world with the characters in his movies.

Take “While We're Young,” for example, his latest film which just premiered here at the Toronto Film Festival. In it, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a couple who have reached that point in life where all of their friends are having babies and they seem fairly sure that's not something they want. Josh is a documentary filmmaker who is coming up on his tenth year of tinkering with the same project, and Cornelia is a producer who works for her father (Charles Grodin), a successful older documentarian who used to be Josh's mentor. If they were the only three main characters in the film, there's still enough angst and tension and underlying pathology in the three of them to make me squirm for two full hours.

When a young married hipster couple (and no, I do no invoke the “h” word lightly) audits a class he teaches one day, Josh ends up bringing them along to dinner with Cornelia. Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) seem like visitors from an alien planet to Josh, and when Jamie gushes praise for Josh's one released documentary, that's all the hook Josh needs. When he looks at Jamie and Darby, he sees potential and youth and creativity, and it is an image they seem to cultivate ferociously. Jamie is pretty much the dictionary definition of a hipster, from the way he dresses to the philosophy he espouses, and one of the compelling things about Driver's performance is the way he makes it impossible to tell if this is something Jamie really believes or if it's a costume he's wearing because he knows it has a certain effect on people. He and Darby live in a loft space, they have a wall of vinyl, they make everything, they dress in the right thrift store clothes with Jamie eschewing socks like he's allergic to them, and on and on down the check list. Any hipster stereotype you can name, these two seem to embody it.

Cornelia is less enamored of the couple at first, but as she finds herself frozen out of her longtime social circle because everyone else is bonding over babies, she turns to Darby as a way of reclaiming her youth. The same is true of Josh. He sees a chance to restart himself through Jamie's work, playing mentor in a way he wishes Cornelia's father would still play mentor with him. It makes Josh feel impressive and powerful to be able to hold forth on his theories about filmmaking with Jamie, and for a while, Josh and Cornelia feed on this younger couple like youth vampires, enjoying what it does for them, determined to feel younger.

But with this being a Noah Baumbach film, you can be sure that there are rotten cores to some of these people, and little by little, the film starts to pick away at the very notion of hipster culture, attacking it as a pose, suggesting that there is a pose being struck by these kids that hides an ambition that is frightening. When you look at what happened with the hippie generation as they got older, there is that moment when the rejection of the mainstream stops because someone just wants a nicer car or they want to eat in a good restaurant or they want to wear socks again because they're genuinely comfortable, and Baumbach suggests that it's just a role being played, one that this generation will shrug off when it becomes convenient.

The film also serves as a debate about the morality of documentary filmmaking and how grey the ethical conversation around the form has become since the rise of “reality” television, and while I think Baumbach raises some interesting points, it is the material that I find most uneven in the film. The film spends an awful lot of time trying to create a moral flashpoint, and it never feels like they quite get there. Lines are crossed, or at least blurred, but the outrage felt in response feels muddled. The film is at its best when it simply focuses on this strange dynamic between the two couples and the way they are each looking for something from the other that they don't dare articulate for fear of having to grapple with these weaknesses or flaws in themselves. I feel like there are a few movies tangled together here, and not always successfully. It also seems that Watts and Seyfried, who are both good in their roles, are sidelined a bit, written less fully than their husbands, and it's a shame. There are some very interesting things going on between their characters, and it feels like the film loses interest in the exploration of what it's like for Cornelia, who miscarried several times, to suddenly be surrounded by babies and by this sort of hive-mind insistence by her friends that she should try again. That almost feels like its own film, and it gets shortchanged here.

There are strong supporting performances from Brady Corbet and Dree Hemingway here, and the main cast all digs in to these meaty roles. Stiller and Baumbach are a perfect match, and Stiller can somehow be both embarrassing and sympathetic at the same time, cringe-worthy but in a way that is sort of heart-breaking. Driver is making a career for himself right now by playing variations on a theme, and certainly there's not a lot of distance between the guy he plays in “Girls” or the character in “This Is Where I Leave You” or this guy, but the differences that are there are what suggest just how good Driver's going to be over the long haul as an actor. He keeps getting cast in this part because, let's be honest, he's very good at playing it, and he makes Jamie a fascinating monster, this weird hipster shark who is ready to digest anyone who might give him some other detail to add to this persona he's created for himself.

It's a handsomely made film, and funny enough that it could be a commercial prospect for A24, who just picked it up. While I don't think it has the same coherent completeness as “Frances Ha” or “The Squid And The Whale,” this fits comfortably on the same shelf as Baumbach's other work, and he continues to cast his vaguely misanthropic eye on modern life with a harsh focus, paying off in a movie with that thing that Jamie and Josh and everyone else in the film are all chasing with such vigor: an authentic voice.

“While We're Young” does not currently have a release date.