A movie about ideas… now there’s a challenge. Josh (Ben Stiller) is a forties-something documentary maker. After an early success, he has been stuck for ten years on his second feature, with the end not in sight. Jamie (Adam Driver) is a bright young hipster, on top of everything in our digital, selfie-centric culture. When Josh meets Jamie he is energised by the younger man’s ‘just do it’ approach and the pair strike up an unlikely camaraderie. What Josh is slow to grasp is that their relationship is one of protagonist and antagonist, for Josh is committed to his old-school belief in artistic authenticity while, as a player on the new stage, Jamie is a child of his pragmatic time. In Noah Baumbach’s previous film, the dancer Frances Ha was similarly out of step with the cut and thrust happening around her, but whereas she was able to draw on an inner detachment to cope with it, Josh becomes agitated at his inability to adapt, and worse – he envies Jamie’s youthfulness.
Baumbach’s witty and at times touching screenplay, though scathing in its contempt for the falseness of so much contemporary media (he is the same age as Josh), has the good grace to not become a diatribe thanks to his reluctant concession that ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. Stiller, carrying on from where he left off as Walter Mitty, has always had a knack for tapping that essence of the little guy who tries so hard. He finds a perfect partner in Naomi Watts as his wife Cornelia, who is supportive without being obeisant. But her sad history of miscarriages and the couple’s sometime-desire to have a child feels like an afterthought that Baumbach has had to give Cornelia a more significant role, especially as Jamie’s Darby (Amanda Seyfried) is little more than a pretty face and an example of a type that falls under the spell of a conniving egomaniac. If Max is not your go, this is a refreshing alternative.