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Retrospective: The Films Of Noah Baumbach

Retrospective: The Films Of Noah Baumbach

Here’s one true thing you can say about Noah Baumbach: with just nine directorial features under his belt, it’s remarkable that his career divides so neatly into clearly demarcated, diverse sections. But here’s another true thing you can say about Noah Baumbach: with all of nine directorial features under his belt, it’s remarkable how consistent, and consistently recognizable, his output is — his films are unmistakably his. This ostensible contradiction is one of the things that makes looking back over Baumbach’s filmography — prompted by this week’s release of his latest filmMistress America” — such a rewarding experience. Not only is he a filmmaker with a manageable, contained and thematically consistent filmography, but he has approached his recurrent themes from different angles, in different registers and with different effects.

Part of this is probably because Baumbach’s output is remarkably personal (the temptation to read it as directly autobiographical is often overwhelming), so it has changed as he has changed. Appropriately, for a filmmaker who has made “hyper-keen awareness of one’s lifestage” a key component of most of his characters and all of his plots, Baumbach has always dealt in growing pains —of growing up and then of growing old. And he has done so on occasion with such a keen, almost cruel eye for the pettiness, pretension and self-delusion that accompanies these processes that he mines acute, broad-based truths from relatively rarefied milieus; Baumbach’s characters are overwhelmingly white, college-educated East Coast-ers, smart enough to know that their privilege gives them little right to the angst they feel, but dumb enough to feel it anyway. 

Accordingly, his first three films feature twentysomethings marooned in their post-college years, realizing that converting their youthful potential into an actual career, a family life, or a long-term relationship may not be so easy after all. Then came a long hiatus (during which his disowned, failed experiment “Highball” got a belated release), after which he returned with the excoriating “The Squid and the Whale,” which ushered in a sorta-trilogy of caustic tragicomedies. But after “Greenberg,” Baumbach pivoted once more, finding a looseness and a joy, especially in his creative partnership with Greta Gerwig, that suggests a surprisingly upbeat acceptance of the consolations of growing older and the odd nobility of maybe not having everything figured out.

If he sticks to the three-film rhythm, we’re due for another left turn soon, but honestly, we’d be happy if Baumbach stayed in this groove for a while longer. Here’s our rundown of the directorial features that mark Noah Baumbach’s journey toward this week’s lovely, lively “Mistress America.”

“Kicking and Screaming” (1995)
While it still feels very much conceived in the shadow of filmmaker Whit Stillman, who also made thoughtful, erudite comedies about young people in the city trying to figure it all out, Noah Baumbach’s formal debut “Kicking and Screaming” still feels as oddly relevant today as it did twenty years ago. It’s a snappy, melancholy comedy about blazer-wearing college kids who aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves the summer after they graduate (they’re still in town because, after all, the neighborhood bar is right across the street). Like many of the director’s other films, “Kicking and Screaming” is about a period of limbo: that awkward transition after school ends, where you’ve spent so much time discussing art, literature, and history that you’ve forgotten how to function in the real world. It’s also a touching look at growing up that managed to plant thematic seeds that would end up blossoming in future Baumbach endeavors (delayed maturity, creative stasis, the tenuousness of friendship and fractured family bonds). “Kicking and Screaming” also stands as perhaps the director’s outright funniest movie, packed with snappily quotable one-liners. The story follows a group of friends: Grover (Josh Hamilton) is shell-shocked that his girlfriend is leaving him to study in Prague; the acerbic Max (Chris Eigeman in a career-best performance) is a 50-year old misanthrope in the body of a 20-something undergrad; Otis (Carlos Jacott) works a dreary job at a video rental store and can’t bring himself to actually read for his book club; and bartender Chet (Eric Stoltz), for whom alcohol is a literal philosophy. The movie gets off to a somewhat sluggish start, at a party scene that’s overstuffed with arch dialogue and almost as many pop-culture allusions as a Seth MacFarlane show, but the underlying humanism in Baumbach’s worldview ultimately wins out, and we actually come to care about this quippy group of chums and their endlessly referential, often very amusing conversations. It’s an interesting film to go back and visit after you’ve familiarized yourself with Baumbach’s later work, mostly because the motifs he’s consistently mulled over through the years are fully present here and it’s fascinating to see how his directorial style has evolved since his visually modest debut. Baumbach himself, as was his wont in his first films, also has a brief cameo, as does his father Jonathan (as an English professor). [B+]

“Mr Jealousy” (1997)
Often called “Noah Baumbach’s worst film,” “Mr Jealousy” may just about fit that bill (at least for anyone who hasn’t seen “Highball“) but that doesn’t make it bad bad. In fact, shorn of any expectations of greatness and looked on as an artifact of the late-90s East Coast indie scene, “Mr Jealousy” plays well: an amiable romantic comedy whose main strength is its charm, and whose main flaw is that it’s just charm. Stylistically it feels like a supergroup — Whit Stillman tackling a brazenly mid-period Woody Allen plot embellished with New Wave flourishes (iris-in transitions; laconic omniscient voiceover). But thematically, it’s as personal as any of Baumbach’s films, with his recurrent preoccupation with lifestage-related paralysis and fear of creative impotence as well as his tendency toward intense self-analysis forming the impetus of the plot. But while there are some genuine insights and well-pitched performances (Eric Stoltz and Annabella Sciorra are appealing as the central pair, but Carlos Jacott and Chris Eigeman steal the film in supporting roles), the prickly dialogue that marked out “Kicking and Screaming” only spikes intermittently, and so the film overall goes down just a little too easily, a little too unremarkably. Embarking on a new relationship with unconvincingly “clumsy” but forthright and sexually experienced Ramona (Sciorra), aspiring writer Lester (Stoltz) resolves not to let his jealousy of her former boyfriends scupper the romance. But upon encountering one of those exes, successful writer Dashiell (Eigeman), Lester’s worse nature takes over and he follows him to his therapy group, led by Dr. Poke (Peter Bogdanovich). Of course, Lester joins the group, under the pseudonym of his best friend Vince (Jacott) who, in perhaps the Woody Allen-est twist of all, feeds Lester his real angst so that he also gets free therapy-by-proxy. The convolutions of this doomed plot fairly soon overwhelm any actual depth, but Baumbach has affection for his characters, so while “Mr Jealousy” does inevitably feel a bit ordinary, there are still some nice touches. Ramona is an unusually independent object of affection; Dashiell a very sympathetic “villain,” and Vince a charming sidekick. The main reason, though, if not the worst, that it is definitely among the least of Baumbach’s movies, is that Lester’s life lesson is not particularly hard-learned: it’s breezy and low-stakes, and nothing in “Mr Jealousy” cuts too deep. [B-]

“Highball” (1997)
It’s a bit unfair to critique, or even include, this title as it was never meant to be seen. When Baumbach finished “Mr Jealousy” in 1997 he put together a quick experiment using most of the same cast and six available days to shoot an off-the-cuff narrative that revolved around the Brooklyn apartment of a married couple and the disparate friends who come over for various parties. Set over the course of three soirees— a birthday celebration, a Halloween costume party and a New Year’s fete— “Highball” is essentially a collection of thin conversations and quips stitched together into a fractured, often bitter history of these various friendships. Outside of the “Mr Jealousy” cast (Eric Stoltz, Carlos Jacott, Chris Eigeman, Annabella Sciorra, Peter Bogdanovich — doing impressions the entire time) other cameos include Ally Sheedy and Rae Dawn Chong playing themselves, Justine Bateman, Luna frontman Dean Wareham, who would go on to become a musical collaborator soon after and Baumbach himself. Sadly, the film is, glaringly, not actually about anything and Baumbach decided to scrap it, but after he fell out with the producer, Shoreline Entertainment put it out against his wishes (he then took his name off the film and used the pseudonym Ernie Fusco). And so what feels like a home movie goof between Baumbach and some friends was haphazardly slapped together  — the incoherent editing appears to have been done by a high school student as mistakes, unintentional jump cuts and missing frames litter the movie — and released as “Highball.” For hardcore Baumbach-ites there are a few curious pleasures: the director’s acting (no worse than anyone else’s in the film, frankly); the underrated Carlos Jacott, a Baumbach regular, doing his thing, and of course the highlight, the hilariously bad/awesome “Everybody Felix” closing credits song performed by Wareham. But for the most part “Highball” is tedious in the extreme — exactly why the filmmaker never wanted it released. But its looseness does point to something that Baumbach craved and eventually made happen: a reinvention of his form and method, favoring spontaneity over labored filmmaking. One could even go far as to see it as his proto-“Schizopolis,” the experimental film that Steven Soderbergh made as a cathartic purge to get him out of his filmmaking funk. Baumbach would reclaim his mojo on his next film, but it wouldn’t be until “Frances Ha” that he would finally discover the reboot he was after, the roots of which can be seen in “Highball.” [Grade Withheld/Real Talk: D+]

“The Squid and the Whale” (2005) 
Cruel, hilarious, and nothing short of heartbreaking in its emotional impact, “The Squid and the Whale” stands as perhaps the most pivotal creative turning point to date for its talented writer-director. The film conspicuously moves away from the talky and sometimes outright goofy comedy of his first movies, steering instead towards something legitimately painful. So while it contains many funny moments – often at the expense of William Baldwin, as an oblivious tennis instructor with a bad hair-metal ‘do – fundamentally, it is a tragedy about a family blindsided by their own narcissism. The temptation to brand the film as “autobiographical” is hard to resist: Baumbach did grow up in Brooklyn in the 1970’s, one of four siblings, to a pair of parents who both wrote for a living (his father Jonathan wrote novels and short fiction, while his mother Georgia Brown contributed regularly to the Village Voice). But wherever it derives its power from, “The Squid and the Whale” works on your nerves and heartstrings from its tense opening sequences, where passive-aggression ripples under every perfectly-articulated interaction, to its show-stopping finale at the American Museum of Natural History. The cast all deliver defining performances —there isn’t a weak one in the bunch: Jeff Daniels disguises crippling insecurity behind a mountain of haughty self-regard as the cheap, philandering father; Laura Linney seems capable of suggesting more with a look than some actors can with a ten-page monologue as the put-upon mother, while Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline (Kevin’s son) truly make us feel the naked pain of having your sense of childhood security brutally stripped away. The film also marks the second collaboration between Baumbach and friend Wes Anderson, who gets a producing credit here and who gave Baumbach feedback on the script (Baumbach had written “The Life Aquatic,” and the two would collaborate again on the delightful “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). Like its later companions “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg,” “The Squid and the Whale” is a deeply sad comedy about how no amount of book learning and so-called academic knowledge can prepare you for the pain and disappointment that real life can bring. In that regard, it stands as one of the director’s finest accomplishments, and as the picture that returned him to the scene after a long hiatus, it transformed him from an under-the-radar talent to one of the sharpest filmmakers working today. [A]

“Margot at the Wedding” (2007)
In Baumbach’s rogues gallery of bad spouses, bad parents, bad siblings, and bad exes, it’s possible he never devised as utterly terrible a human as Margot in “Margot at the Wedding,” a part torn into with sharp-toothed, vivisectionary relish by a never-better Nicole Kidman. But while this scathing portrait of a triumphantly unlikeable (and surprisingly un-redeemed) character definitely has claws, it’s the film’s wickedly acid sense of humor — a facet that many critics at the time seemed to ignore entirely — that keeps it so compulsively watchable. Well, that and the standard-issue (for Baumbach), across-the board great performances, from Kidman at its center, but also a tremendous Jennifer Jason Leigh as Margot’s freer-spirited sister Pauline, Jack Black as Pauline’s cool-dude but shiftless fiancé, and John Turturro as Margot’s embattled husband, along with terrifically lived-in performances from its juvenile leads. What’s particularly to be admired about ‘Margot’ is just how few punches it pulls with that character, going hell-for-leather in making her the rarest of cinematic birds: a female antihero. So she’s not given cute, fixable, external problems; Margot is desperately fucked up from within, and it’s a soul-deep brokenness that sits alongside her character’s razor-sharp, almost animalistic intelligence, and that finds its easiest targets in the very people that her social roles suggest she should most protect: her husband, her sister, and most audaciously, her son Claude (Zane Pais). Her warping, self-interested exchanges with Claude, himself on the cusp of adulthood and subject suddenly to the full bore of his mother’s psychological profiling (oh, how she loves to “diagnose” everyone except herself), form some of the most acutely uncomfortable moments, as Margot refuses to conform to any maternal stereotypes, despite Claude’s steady, almost dazzled filial affection toward her. Widely criticized as simply too much of a downer at the time, the film has been rehabilitated quite a bit since, and it retains an absolutely keen cutting edge even eight years later, and even after Baumbach himself has taken another of his patented career about-turns, this time into the gentler and more joyous territory of his post-“Frances Ha” period. Sandwiched in quality and in chronology between its spiritual kin “The Squid and the Whale” and “Greenberg,” it’s very clear why “Margot at the Wedding” has earned a reputation as a tremendously difficult film to love. Lord knows, then, what it says about those of us who love it almost unreservedly. [B+]

“Greenberg” (2010)
At this point, Baumbach’s career was on a steady trajectory — from “The Squid and the Whale” to “Margot at the Wedding” and then to “Greenberg” one can draw a straight, slightly downward-trending line. The filmgoers of 2010 could have been forgiven for believing that this was the Baumbach we were going to be stuck with forever, and having reinvented himself as a merciless chronicler of destructive narcissism among the white, privileged, educated chattering classes of America, he was going to turn in ever more bitter and crabbed portraits of unlikeable heroes, their self-defeating ways and their sometimes unearned redemptions. Because that’s certainly what “Greenberg” is — centering on a valiantly unsoftened performance from Ben Stiller as the titular 40-year-old washout, it’s a film that is occasionally genuinely painful to watch as its dickish protagonist continually mistakes intense self-absorption and self-importance for self-awareness, and in the process alienates almost everyone he knows. But as unstinting as the focus is on Roger Greenberg, a funny thing happens to the film that both partially redeems it for the viewer, and makes a huge amount of retrospective sense in context of the films Baumbach’s made since: Greta Gerwig. As Florence — assistant, dog walker and minder to Roger’s affluent brother’s family — Gerwig is that impossible mix of gorgeous and totally real: she oxygenates an otherwise airless story. Baumbach always had a facility for writing interesting women — even his earliest films, though told from a centrally male perspective, show the women therein as having lives outside the frame. So Florence at one point has an abortion as, amazingly, kind of a side issue, and an early fumbled sex scene has her apologize for her “ugly bra” — such details make her a person more than an object, and Gerwig just inhabits them. So even among a supporting cast that includes terrific turns from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rhys Ifans, Brie Larson and Juno Temple and despite being second banana to an admirably uncompromising Stiller, Gerwig is so great that it’s her character’s affection for Roger that almost makes us believe he might be worth caring about. Almost. This is the sort of film that one watches and thinks, “God, I wish this was her movie, not his,” but to give Baumbach credit his very next film was “Frances Ha” which was exactly that, and more. [B-]

“Frances Ha” (2012) 
When it was announced that Noah Baumbach was working on a super-secret project with a virtually no-name cast and the inspired working title of “Untitled Noah Baumbach Project,” it was a bit of a surprise. After all, he had just produced a one-two hit of moody, studio-funded chamber dramas featuring big-name leads (Nicole Kidman, Ben Stiller) who seemed intent on stripping away their movie-star vanity to revel in warts-and-all portrayals of unglamorous, perhaps even mean-spirited, broken characters. But “Frances Ha” turned out to be yet another turning point for Baumbach: a warm, fizzy confection of a movie that could almost be called musical in its rhythms. ‘Frances’ is, among other things, a joyous celebration of friendship and young womanhood that has had a tremendous influence on his more recent films like “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America” — films that feel like the work of a man who is possibly happier in life than he has ever been. Joie de vivre bursts through every shimmering black and white frame of ‘Frances,’ a breathless comedy about a young dancer played by Greta Gerwig who is apartment-hopping through Brooklyn and, seemingly, through life itself. Frances may have grace as a performer, but in her life, she stumbles. Her opportunistic best friend Sophie is ditching her for her dream apartment in Tribeca, her non-flirtations with a pair of privileged Brooklyn hipsters (winningly played by Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) are mostly cyclical and self-defeating and even a romantic trip to Paris to stay at a friend’s pied-a-terre turns out to be a bust. And yet Frances’s listlessness never turns into tedium: the film is practically bursting with invention, a film punch-drunk on exactly the sense of purpose its lead lacks, which gives the warm, if threadbare narrative a real pep in its step. And Gerwig is a joy, totally individual and modern, yet revealing the chops of a classical movie comedienne, kinda like Diane Keaton did in the early Allens. Simultaneously luminous and aloof, Gerwig anchors ‘Frances,’ imbuing the film with a lightness of touch that was decidedly lacking in ‘Margot’ and ‘Greenberg.’ While it’s a bit slighter than some of his other pictures, it’s arguably his most enjoyable – filled with endlessly quotable dialogue, pitch-perfect soundtrack choices and real heart — enough to make you want to stand up from your seat and go running down the street while 80’s-era David Bowie plays joyously on the soundtrack. [A-]

“While We’re Young” (2014)
Around the time he was conceiving “Greenberg”— a movie about 40 being the new 30 and our emerging culture of arrested adult-lesence—Baumbach discovered LCD Soundsystem. Frontman James Murphy, whose first score was for Baumbach’s Ben Stiller-starrer, was grappling with the similar ideas about overextended youth, and the dangers of outstaying your welcome and relevance. And so “While We’re Young” is essentially a riff on Murphy’s “I’m Losing My Edge,” his super witty and self-effacing dance single about a hipster fearing his creeping obsolescence as a newer, more savvy, more wired-in generation redefines what’s cool. But Baumbach thankfully does so much more than simply turn that song into a movie: “While We’re Young” examines the relationship between a 40-something artistic couple (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) and tracks how a carefree, millennial couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) help rejuvenate their passions for art and life. And like the aforementioned song, Baumbach takes both a sending-up and a celebratory tone, skewering both the naive idealism of youth and opportunity, while also digging in at the tired, out-of-touch older couple, who no longer find themselves part of the zeitgeist yet remain focused on notions of credibility. One of Baumbach’s most accessible comedies, with less of the acerbic bite of “Margot At The Wedding” or “Greenberg,” “While We’re Young” is funny and sharply observed, but also has much on its mind: there are generational/culture-clash sensibilities to it, but it’s also a thoughtful examination of the evolution of the relationship between art and authenticity in the 21st Century. And on a more gossipy level, it is also reportedly a pointed dig at the protege/mentor dynamic that supposedly briefly existed between Baumbach and Joe Swanberg — and it’s worth noting that there are enough nods and nudges in the film that are seemingly lifted right out of real-life experience to leave many indie insiders wondering. Baumbach has denied this, of course, but yet again the specter of autobiography looms over his work, whatever the case, “While We’re Young” has struck a chord: it’s been Baumbach’s best-performing film so far. [B+]

“Mistress America” (2015)
A sister and companion piece to both “Frances Ha” and “While We’re Young,” like the former, “Mistress America” explores the dynamics between two female friends, and like the latter it examines the dark side of ambition. But what separates “Mistress America” from Baumbach’s other witty and sharp observational works about (what some people see as) White People Problems, is a madcap screwball comedy energy and a nostalgic, all-things-are-possible ‘80s sheen (bolstered by a fantastic dreamy synth score by Dean & Britta). “Mistress America” centers on the tenuous nature of friendship, idolatry, the problems with protege/mentor relationships (another theme of late) all channelled through Brooke (Greta Gerwig); a New York multi-hyphenate and sophisticate with a veneer of indomitable confidence that masks a deep sense of her own fraudulence and lack of actual talent. Tracy (Lola Kirke), is the younger college bestie who through the film explores the nature of vampiric writing: the casualties that can occur when authors exploit their friends for material (shades of the final showdown in “Margot at the Wedding” here). Again, it’s endlessly charming and funny, but has a lot of texture underneath the zaniness and the bevy of classic bon mots. And perhaps that’s because the authorship of “Mistress America” actually skews closer to Gerwig than to Baumbach: she came up with the lead, she plays the lead and she co-wrote the movie, but that’s certainly no bad thing, lending the movie a fresh radiant energy that’s as irresistible as it is infectious. [B+]

Outside of these features, Baumbach has also written scripts, most notably for Wes Anderson with “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” and “The Fantastic Mr Fox” and most bizarrely for 2012’s “Madagscar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.” He also toiled on the sadly defunct TV adaptation of Jonathan Franzen‘s “The Corrections” and further back directed a single episode of “Saturday Night Live,” as well as a half-hour short, “Conrad & Butler Take a Vacation” in 2000, which stars John Lehr and Baumbach regular Carlos Jacott (who pops up on TV most frequently these days). And coming up, Baumbach and Jake Paltrow collaborated on a documentary on Brian De Palma, which is one of the titles we’re looking forward to catching at the 2015 Venice Film Festival.

So how do you feel about Baumbach? Incisive, witty chronicler of modern malaise, or White-People-Problem fraud? Our own position is probably pretty clear, but sound off, or call out your own favorites in the comments below.

–Jessica Kiang, Nicholas Laskin, Rodrigo Perez

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