Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentary maker whose first film released was much hailed as an excellent work by many of those who saw it, but it has taken him over ten years to craft a follow-up, and even then he’s nowhere near editing his hundred hours of footage into a film of a decent length. Unable to admit the piece has gotten away from him, he spends his time adding to it when he’s not at his job at a college lecturer, and when he’s not doing that he spends time with his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and their friends Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia) who have recently had a baby and are in a roundabout manner encouraging their pals to do the same. But they’ve made up their minds they don’t want kids - so what's the next best thing?
How about hanging around with a younger generation, but not so young they cannot form proper sentences? That is what Josh and Cornelia end up with when a couple approach Josh at one of his lectures, which doesn't seem to have gone too well in his mind but they flatter him by saying they’re very impressed with his theories and hey, wouldn't you like to go an catch a bite to eat? Thus there is set in motion a series of events where he finds the bonuses of middle youth, as does his wife, as they find they're happier with the twentysomethings, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), than they are with people their own age, mostly because they feel they are being validated when these young ones are in effect accepting them.
As Josh says, he'd never dream of making friends with the older generation when he was in his twenties, so now he is mates with someone nearly two decades younger it’s great to be appreciated. For the first half, this comes across as a satire of the middle-aged desperate to be cool much in the same way a film like Taking Off or Serial would have done an age before, and in that vein it has some very funny scenes, such as Cornelia inviting herself to a baby concert and discovering she cannot take the pressure when Darby's counter-invitation to exercise at a hip-hop workout is a more attractive proposition: Watts throws herself into the moves in an overenthusiastic fashion much as Stiller has portrayed Josh as a man overcompensating for something he has never achieved.
Yet what in other director's hands could have been a paean to lost youth was in Noah Baumbach's stylings less on the side of the younger set and more a dismayed "I liked that before you did, you whippersnapper!" as it became in the latter section when Josh wakes up to the fact that there is more to this friendship with Jamie than him adopting his own protégé. We see the clues early on, the preference the hipsters have for VHS and vinyl over streaming and MP3s, or how they play pick and mix with older items of pop culture to create their own, be they vintage ads they watched on YouTube or some golden oldie they heard on the radio: basically, if you think sampling in music is nothing more than theft, you will sympathise with how the director portrays his scenario, and find the understanding more tempered by, well, temper.
He did muster up a very fine cast, with everyone finding their character's pulse from their first scene, from the four leads to supporting roles for the likes of Charles Grodin as Cornelia's more respected documentarian father or Peter Yarrow from sixties folk pioneers Peter, Paul and Mary as the academic Josh is obsessed with recording. Also worth mentioning in a small but perfectly judged performance was Ryan Serhant, one of the funniest things in the movie. But the documentary aspect was important, for it conveyed a concern that now everything was being recorded, didn't that seriously undermine the integrity of the professional filmmaker who would aspire to art from truth, especially as that truth was proving hard to identify when there was such a personal agenda (not political, personal) to so many visuals? Had Baumbach noted the success of Catfish and decided there was something more to the controversy than simple complaints about fraud? And as Josh and Cornelia settle for befriending an even younger, tech-saturated generation, what then? Music by James Murphy.