Toronto Film Festival: Ben Stiller and Adam Driver Take Up the Olds vs. Youngs Battle

Director Noah Baumbach has a lot to say about getting older and ceding the artistic world to young frauds in While We're Young, which world-premiered at TIFF on Saturday.

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In my quest to navigate TIFF via public screenings, I found out that I was not privy to any of the "premium" show times, a.k.a. the premieres. No red carpets for this guy, which, honestly, is to everybody's benefit. But every so often, a kind publicist will look upon this decrepit, ticket-less beggar and show some mercy. So I got invited to the World Premiere (and after-party!) for Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, a rather exciting event if I allow my steely journalistic exterior to drop for a second. (And while we're here, I can briefly say that the after party had very good drinks, and the only celebrity I spoke to was Greta Gerwig, who I'd just seen in Eden, about which I will say much more in my next dispatch.)

Baumbach's film was easily one of my most anticipated in the festival, considering how much affection I have for Frances Ha (my #1 movie of 2013), and I would think it would be very difficult not to view While We're Young through the lens of that other (much better) film. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts co-star as that kind of flatlining married couple you often see in movies. There are no problems (yet), they're just pretty boring. They don't want (or can't have) kids like their friends are having. They've fallen into professional ruts (he directs documentary films; she "produces" them, and all that those scare quotes imply). They are primed, then, to latch onto Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, a compelling young couple full of "hipster" affectations both accurately drawn and not (I'm not sure the peyote-and-gurus crowd runs in Bushwick as rampantly as Baumbach thinks it does). Driver's character is your classic charismatic huckster, a budding documentarian himself who seeks out Stiller's guidance, and Stiller (and eventually Watts) falls for him hard.

Things progress along a few familiar lines. There's the This Is Forty stuff, with Stiller and Watts wearing dumb hipster hats and taking hip-hop classes and trying to keep up with their youthful new besties. There's a sort of All About Eve/Six Degrees of Separation by way of Catfish storyline for Driver. By the time you reach the rather operatic, pseudo-Sorkin climax (...I know), we've arrived at a referendum on Millennials as entitled, value-less charlatans, with Stiller going all Network about the generational divide and truth in filmmaking.

There are lots of laughs to be found in While We're Young. It's Baumbach's broadest comedy in some time; maybe ever. Less so than in Greenberg, Stiller is still quite invigorated by Baumbach's camera, and both Watts and Seyfried get their moments, though I'd have loved for Seyfried to get a few more. I don't think we've gotten a chance to see her play this kind of a role — canny and sarcastic and wiser than her surroundings — since she was on Veronica Mars.

But  I couldn't stop thinking about Frances Ha, a film that Baumbach co-wrote with his girlfriend Greta Gerwig. He's 45, she's 31. Frances (which also co-stars Adam Driver) is a film about the very Millennials Baumbach is taking shots at here, only viewed through a much more sympathetic, actually empathetic lens. Fun is still had with Frances and her aimlessness, and her friends and their moments of clueless entitlement. But there's never any doubt that the film thinks fondly of its characters. That generosity of spirit was something of a change of pace for Baumbach, who's best work in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding could fairly be described as merciless, and it was tempting to chalk that up to Gerwig's influence on the script. After seeing While We're Young, my major takeaway is that  Frances Ha may have been much more of a Greta Gerwig creation than we'd even given her credit for at the time.

Armchair psychology isn't a great look for a film critic, but it's impossible to watch While We're Young and not think about Baumbach looking askew at Gerwig and her friends and her generation. To imagine him following her to a Williamsburg party where someone may have been boasting about his VHS collection. Where porkpie hats dotted the landscape, and no one knew what the hell they were talking about. There's a rage in Stiller's character (isn't there always) about growing older and feeling timid and being both jealous of and horrified by these young, confident creatures who take shortcuts. That anger is what I think is intended to separate the film from being what would otherwise be a broad Ben Stiller comedy with Baumbach's name slapped on. That anger can be blisteringly funny. But ultimately, he's just hollering out the window at those punk kids.

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