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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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There’s a point during Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young when one of the characters, a frustrated documentary filmmaker, refers to himself as an old man. Even as a comparative statement, it’s a stretch. Played by Ben Stiller, the “aging” documentarian is in his mid-40s.

For those of us for whom the mid-40s long ago have slipped into (or perhaps out of) memory, Stiller’s statement may prompt involuntary snickers.

Stiller and Watts make plans while they're young
Stiller and Watts make plans while they’re young

But then Baumbach, 45 himself, isn’t necessarily interested in actual aging. Among other things, his movie is about losing touch with the promise of youth. What happens when one realizes that the salad days are over and even the most exotic dressing can’t put the crisp back into life’s lettuce?

It’s a potentially rich subject for a director who has been making films since 1995’s Kicking and Screaming and whose filmography includes The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, and Frances Ha, as well as the upcoming Mistress America.

With age 50 in sight, does Baumbach worry about reaching his full potential?

While We’re Young can be seen as a zeitgeist comedy set in New York City, a place where success and failure tend to exist in dramatic counterpoint.

When things aren’t going well, New York is an easy place to feel small and failed. That makes it an ideal spot for a character played by Stiller, a self-conscious sad sack who’s flirting with defeat.

I had a conflicted response to While We’re Young. I didn’t care much about the concerns of its principal characters, a middle-aged couple (Stiller and Naomi Watts) and a couple still in their 20s (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried).

At the same time, I found some of Baumbach’s observations about these characters to be amusing and, on occasion, pointed.

Baumbach spends a good deal of time playing with generational styles and tastes, sometimes flip-flopping them between his middle-aged and the still youthful characters. The older characters, for example, are Google obsessed; the younger ones don’t Google because they take pride in not knowing things. Why bother?

Stiller’s Josh hasn’t come close to fulfilling his potential. He’s been working on his second documentary for 10 years, and can’t get beyond a six-hour, sleep-inducing rough cut.

Watts’ Cornelia frets about being childless. She works as a producer for her father (Charles Grodin), an acclaimed documentarian who’s at a stage where he’s receiving lifetime achievement awards. He’s the worst possible father-in-law for Josh, a constant reminder of what Josh hasn’t accomplished.

Driver’s Jamie and Seyfried’s Darby latch onto Josh at a film class he’s teaching. Gradually, the tables turn, and Josh and Cornelia begin clinging to this younger, free-spirited duo.

Jamie’s so unconcerned about being hip, he’s actually hip. And unlike Josh, he’s far too young to fear making fatal mistakes.

For her part, Darby dabbles with entrepreneurial craft projects: She makes ice cream.

Watching Josh and Cornelia try to turn back the clock can be amusing — in a painful sort of way. They attempt to keep pace with the younger couple, most ludicrously at an Ayahuasca get-together where everyone ingests a psychedelic brew before barfing out inner demons.

Baumbach sticks fairly close to the surface as he allows these characters to reveal their inner preposterousness, Cornelia’s laugh-out-loud foray into hip-hop dancing, for example.

It’s not entirely surprising to learn that Jamie may not be living in the moment as much as he pretends to be, a development that dominates the movie’s third act.

The story pretty much derails when it gets caught up in ethical issues involving a documentary Jamie is making (yes, he’s a filmmaker, too).

While We’re Young proves entertaining enough, but its many small observations don’t add up to anything bigger.

By the end, I found myself wondering whether the plights of these self-absorbed characters could have been reduced to one perceptively amusing New Yorker cartoon. Put another way, I had a few good chuckles, and quickly turned the page.