Noah Baumbach has pulled off a minor miracle. Twice. In the 2010 dramedy “Greenberg” and now in the deliciously observed “While We’re Young,” the writer-director has taken Ben Stiller’s oft annoying on-screen persona and made it not just bearable but touching.
It’s a feat Stiller himself — try as he might — wasn’t able to achieve in his self-directed reboot of the Danny Kaye adventure comedy “Walter Mitty.”
What happens when Baumbach and Stiller work together is more than chemistry. It’s alchemy, with director and actor making a brilliant case for the impossible vulnerability of the neurotic.
Woody Allen made persuasive art delivering that typically New York City citizen’s aching hilarity. Baumbach’s achievement is played less for laughs (though there are plenty), more for sweet melancholy.
Josh Srebnick (Stiller) is a forty-something maker of documentaries. On his 10th year editing and, uh-oh, still shooting his latest, his wunderkind aura has faded. Scenes between Josh and his underpaid editor are funny-sad-true.
But the movie isn’t called “While I’m Young” and it’s not merely a story about one entitled guy’s crisis. Fundamental to this Stiller reclamation project (and, yes, I’m not usually a fan) is Naomi Watts as wife Cornelia, Charles Grodin as her father and Josh’s onetime mentor and whelps Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried as the twentysomething couple Josh and Cornelia befriend.
Josh and Cornelia both are experiencing the muted — and at times shared — crisis that comes from not being precisely where or whom they hoped and aimed to be. (“I think I’m old, therefore I am what exactly?”) They haven’t had children, although best friends Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia) are newly minted, gaga parents.
A smarty-pants in the best possible sense, Baumbach kicks off the film with a bit of dialog from Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” in which architect Halvard Solness complains bitterly about the young and his mistrust of them.
The wonderful thing about “While We’re Young” and the relationship that develops between Josh and Cornelia and Jamie and Darby is that it’s less about resentment than it is a celebration of romantic love. At least initially. Only this connection takes place between couples. It begins with nascent filmmaker Jamie courting Josh after a class the sincere doc-maker teaches.
This is no kinky foray into polyamorous coupling. It’s a crush story. Oh, it’s a serious, rethink one’s life smittenness but a crush just the same, rife with over-identifying and early openness.
How open? Josh and Cornelia grow apart from old friends Fletch and Marina and head out on adventures they didn’t even bother with in their 20s. One finds them participating in a hallucinatory ritual, complete with upchuck buckets and the New Ageiest of gurus.
Grodin plays legendary documentary filmmaker Leslie Breitbart. The actor brings a believable benevolence to Breitbart. It feels earned, the stuff of maturity. He often looks at Josh with a kind of compassionate concern.
Josh may experience it as condescension, but then he’s yet to find his own sweet spot from which to keep growing artistically and not let disappointments turn him churlish.
Over time, Josh begins to feel competitive with Jamie. Yet, he tries to tamp down his egoism, going so far at to help Jamie out on a film.
Driver’s terrific at teetering between what could be youthfully affected cool and something more “All About Eve.” Is this lanky charmer Eve Harrington to Josh’s Margo Channing? Oh, if only Josh felt so accomplished.
By now, this might sound too heavy. If so, my bad. As thoughtful as “While We’re Young” is, it comes with fine bouts of joy. Some go big, as when Cornelia busts her hip-hop moves in their kitchen.
Others prove subtle, the stuff of warm nostalgia. Is that nursery mobile playing David Bowie’s “Golden Years”? Why, yes, yes it is.