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Naomi Watts is the only grown-up at baby class without a baby in While We’re Young.

I’m so glad Noah Baumbach has lightened up. He spent the back half of the 2000s making a trio of dramedies — The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg — whose closely observed character studies of loathsome people were mesmerizing in that you-want-to-look-away-but-you-can’t manner. Excellent as those were, I can’t help but welcome the lightness and joy that have crept into his filmmaking lately, starting with 2013’s Frances Ha. That continues now with the harder-edged but still sparkling satire While We’re Young, the best comedy so far this year.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia Stebnick, a fortysomething married Brooklyn couple who respectively direct and produce documentary films. They’ve just given up trying to have children when they meet twentysomething married couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). He’s an aspiring documentarian who adores Josh’s work, she makes artisanal ice cream, and Josh and Cornelia fall in love. While their middle-aged friends talk about boring middle-aged crap, the Stebnicks see their own fun, dynamic, spontaneous younger selves in this couple who share a loft with a huge vinyl LP collection, two chickens, two kittens –– Good Cop and Bad Cop –– and a roommate named Tipper (Dree Hemingway) who wears an assortment of t-shirts with ironic logos like “Some College I Didn’t Go To.” Cornelia says, “It’s like their apartment is full of everything we threw out, but it looks so good.”

Baumbach’s satire is amazingly deft, with his barbs landing in equal measure on the youngsters and the not-so-youngsters. Somehow, it tells us volumes about the Stebnicks that they have matching iPhone cases that look like old cassette tapes. The characters of Josh and Cornelia’s new-parent friends (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia) let Baumbach rip off some zingers about baby culture, and just when he seems to tire of skewering the pretensions of the creative class, he brings on a hedge-fund meathead (Ryan Serhant) and gleefully mocks him.

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This all could have been really mean, yet Baumbach’s sympathies flit among almost everybody here and keep the film from curdling. He presents Cornelia’s living-legend documentarian father (Charles Grodin) as both a fount of wisdom and an admitted “selfish prick.” Horovitz’ graying dad eventually reveals himself to be more self-aware and less baby-obsessed than he seems. (The former Beastie Boys rapper does creditable work in his first substantive movie role.) Even the Wall Street douche has some good points to make about Josh’s film project, which has been 10 years in the making, currently runs six and a half hours, and appears to be about everything in the world.

Meanwhile, Jamie and Darby initially come off as hipster caricatures. (“We had our wedding in an empty water tower in Harlem,” Darby says. “There was a mariachi band and a Slip’N Slide.”) However, then Josh watches in disbelief and jealousy as Jamie strikes pay dirt with a moronic idea about filming a face-to-face encounter with his very first Facebook friend. Though the Stebnicks are blinded by their infatuation, we can see the fissures opening in Jamie and Darby’s marriage. The fallout from Jamie’s early success reveals unexpected, if not all pleasant, hidden layers to everyone.

All this is told through a series of set pieces that consistently score laughs, most spectacularly in an interlude midway through when all four main characters (and a roomful of others) get wacked out on ayahuasca. These actors play off one another magnificently, with Stiller being close to ideal for the role of a frustrated artiste and Driver giving a cagey performance as a guy hiding rapacious, unscrupulous ambition behind his laidback facade. Watts kicks in the funniest performance of her career, whether Cornelia’s stumbling her way through a hip-hop dance class with Darby, making a panicked exit from a baby music class where the moms are enjoying the infantile songs much more than the babies, or walking on her knees while wearing an all-white outfit to receive the ayahuasca and randomly muttering, “I’m 43!”

While We’re Young functions as a useful reminder that old age comes for even the hippest of us, but it’s far more than that. The movie marks an important development for its 46-year-old writer-director. In detailing his characters’ awkward transitions to the next phase of their lives, Noah Baumbach is the one who seems to have fully matured. It looks glorious on him.

 

[box_info]While We’re Young
Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, and Amanda Seyfried. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Rated R.[/box_info]

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