1. Of all the criticisms my fellow Gen-Xers have of Millennials, there isn't one that cracks me up more than "they're too self-involved." This is freaking rich, coming from us. Being self-involved was our thing. We were the ones who were obsessed with authenticity, and "reality," and not "selling out," even though our only real definitions of those things seemed to be "not doing things we didn't personally want to do." We overly documented everything, we went on personal journeys of self-realization, we put off getting married and having kids so we could pretend we were still kids, we treated the world like it owed us something, we smoked a shit-ton of weed, we started blogs, we went to Prague. It's the same shit. The same criticisms our parents said about us — they're soft, entitled, unwilling to work hard, obsessed with piddling personal discoveries rather than the world as a whole — are what we say about Millennials, and they're of course what the same criticisms our parents' parents said about them. Youth may be wasted on the young, but the only people who care are the olds.
2. While We're Young, the new comedy from Noah Baumbach, is about a Gen-X couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who, bored with their childless life after their best friends (Maria Dizzia and an extremely likable Ad-Rock) have a baby, become unlikely pals with a married pair of Williamsburg twentysomethings (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). This alien couple from Planet Young give our heroes lessons on self-actualization, making your own ice cream, hallucinogenic shamanism, and, naturally, New York City bicycle regulations. Then everything turns, of course. There's a bunch of plot machinations — a lot more than Baumbach usually messes with — about documentary filmmaking, and who's lying to whom when, and who kissed who and for what reason, but make no mistake: this is a comedy about old people complaining about young people.
3. Now, there's a lot to work with there, and Baumbach, in what's easily his most conventional and commercial film, gives the film a fun rhythm and fills it with some legitimately good gags. (My favorite ongoing one is how every time the check comes for dinner or drinks with the two couples, Driver and Seyfriend are suddenly mesmerized by their phones.) But I'm not sure he sees the forest for the trees here. Baumbach, from the days of Kicking and Screaming, has always been obsessed with His Generation, but I'm not sure he still quite grasps that there is nothing special about his generation. All his movies have grappled with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, but he keeps putting it on external factors: when he was young, it was pressure to conform, and now that he's old, it's kids not understanding what it means to be real, man. He has the foundations of a grand comedy about human nature and self-delusion — about the reason certain ages are dissatisfying being because life is dissatisfying, no matter what age you are — but you can't help but think he's a little self-deluded himself. Because for all flaws he gives Stiller's character, the 44-year-old (actually 49, but who's counting!), he's still Baumbach's surrogate and, most important, Baumbach does believe he's right. These millennials don't get it: they are self-involved and sneaky and don't understand what's important in life and dammit he does.
4. This is most evident in the Driver character, who is a wannabe filmmaker who initially contacts Stiller (who has been working on his own failed documentary for 10 years), as it turns out, because he wants a connection to Stiller's more famous and more successful documentarian father-in-law (a terrific Charles Grodin, which might be the oldest dependent clause I've ever typed). We see Driver's character as self-obsessed, slippery, and maybe even a little slimy throughout the film, but as the plot churns forward, Baumbach actually turns him into something resembling a sociopath. While this doesn't turn into a third-act ah-ha! moment it might in a lesser film, it certainly is a cheat: turning Driver into an actual villain — at one point openly threatening to blackmail Watts's character — does stack the deck in a movie that theoretically should be paving an even playing field. This is also accentuated by Driver's performance, which is just outstanding: we is both oily and irresistible in a way that makes you want to punch him and also totally buy that hat he's wearing. Driver is so charismatic that when Baumbach makes Stiller's internal struggle (am I crazy, or are young people assholes these days?) into an external plot point, the movie goes flying off the rails.
5. And it really does fall apart over the last half hour, a surprisingly broad comedy turning sour and confused. By the end, I'll confess to ultimately being baffled what the point of the film was supposed to be. Is Baumbach saying that hanging onto your ideals deep into middle age — even when you do so to your own detriment — is a good thing, or a bad thing? Is it OK to lie in a documentary, or isn't it? And mostly: are we all stupid selfish pricks, or is there something special that exempts those who happen to be in Baumbach's generation? Baumbach can't get out of his own headspace long enough to come up with an answer. He's full of wry, smart observations about New York, and technology, and how nothing is quite as wonderful as being young and not having to care a whit about anything. But he has nothing new to say about himself. And ultimately he ends up landing in a reactionary, almost conservative place. This is a funny movie. It is also an old man yelling at a cloud.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.