Friday, May 1, 2015

the Directors: Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach’s films are about people of a certain age, and how they respond to the time they’ve had, and the time they have left. These ages vary – from the confused collection of college grads in Kicking and Screaming, to the fortysomethings with twentysomething hearts in While We’re Young. Isolation is another theme of his work; how one deals with the confusion of the hyper world around them. 

In discussing Baumbach’s career, I’m going to be talking a lot about time. The time expressed in the films themselves, but also how time in real life has allowed me to appreciate his work more. Rarely have I had a reversal on so many films by the same director. Proof that, as we get older, sometimes films really do get better.

Kicking and Screaming (1995)
Kicking and Screaming is about a group of college friends trying to figure out what to do with their lives post-graduation. The film has a free roaming narrative reminiscent of Barry Levinson’s Diner. Save a central romance that the movie occasionally comes back to, there’s very little plot involved in Kicking and Screaming. Instead, it acts as a timestamp for well-to-do white American kids who earn prestigious college degrees and are left asking, “Yeah, so now what?”

And that was my main problem with Kicking and Screaming the first time I saw it. I enjoyed some of the snappy, cute dialogue, as well as many of the performances (Parker Posey is incapable of being anything less than great), but I couldn’t identify with the plight of the characters. I was in the college when I initially saw the film, and “Yeah, so now what?” wasn’t an issue for me yet. It wasn’t until years later, while in the midst of said phase, that I finally understood what Baumbach was going for. If Kicking and Screaming has survived, it’s because it doesn’t offer a simple answer to that question. In fact, most all of his films are essentially about “Yeah, so now what?” And hell, does anyone ever know? B

Mr. Jealousy (1997)
Baumbach’s second feature concerns itself with a morally reprehensible man (Eric Stoltz) who manipulates his girlfriend to feed his jealousy. He’s the type of guy who gives his girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra) endless shit for how quick she was to sleep with him. He also joins a therapy group just so he can spy on her ex. While Stoltz does what he can with mostly lame material, and it’s always a pleasure to see Peter Bogdanovich (as the group’s shrink), Mr. Jealousy is far too self-aware for its own good. The film also relies too heavily on the kind of dry yet ironic third person narration achieved much better in Woody Allen movies. C-

Highball (1997)
After wrapping Mr. Jealousy, Baumbach used the same cast and crew from that film to create Highball, a movie about a married couple and their friends, that was shot in a Brooklyn apartment over six days. The ambitious project quickly turned into a disaster. Baumbach maintains that he liked the script, but that there wasn’t enough time to complete the film. He abandoned the project, and when it was released on DVD years later without his permission, he asked to have his writer and director credits removed from the film.

Production horror stories like this intrigue me. I like Baumbach’s other films, so, really, how bad can Highball be? I’ve certainly seen worse, but it’s clear why Baumbach (and seemingly everyone involved) want nothing to do with the film. I’d recommend it only for Baumbach completists, which itself seems odd, given that he would be the last person to endorse it. D

The Squid and the Whale (2005)
The Squid and the Whale is Noah Baumbach’s game changer. After a lengthy hiatus from directing, he released this autobiographical, 81 minute film that helped define the current state of American independent cinema. The movie, about a Brooklyn family suffering through a messy divorce, helped establish the mid-2000s indie landscape as well as Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All low budget, particular films made with precision and confidence.

The film’s dialogue is so personal, yet never alienating. The performances, namely from Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney and Jesse Eisenberg, are fearless and exact. You may not like the members of the Berkman family, which makes it that much more uncomfortable when you realize you actually identify with them. Shot with an assertive visual style (by the great Robert D. Yeoman) that, as Baumbach has said, is meant to emulate French New Wave, John Cassavetes and early Martin Scorsese, this is one of the more immediate and claustrophobic films of Baumbach’s career. The Squid and the Whale is a landmark picture, one that I enjoy revisiting often. A

Margot at the Wedding (2007)
The unapologetically unkind Margot (Nicole Kidman) travels with her nice but tortured son, Claude, to attend the wedding of Margot’s sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The sisters haven’t seen each other in a while, and time certainly has not healed all wounds. Margot is continually morose and entitled, having not an ounce of respect for anyone around her. Truly, she’s the most vapid character Baumbach has created, which is really saying something. And while the repulsiveness of the Margot character turned many viewers off, I’ve always found myself oddly compelled by Kidman’s dedicated work in the film. It’s arguably her most unlikeable character to date. And Leigh (who was married to Baumbach when the film was made) hasn’t been better since.

Margot at the Wedding could be Baumbach’s most polarizing film. From Kidman’s ice cold performance, to the natural, intimately low light photography by the late, great Harris Savides. I understand why people don’t like the film, but I remain a proud supporter of it. A-

Greenberg (2010)
Greenberg is one of the biggest cinema reversals I’ve ever experienced. To say I suffered through the film’s 107 minutes in the theater is an understatement. I sat perplexed and annoyed by what I was watching. I rolled my eyes at Ben Stiller’s stilted performance, shook my head at Greta Gerwig’s aimlessness – I couldn’t get into it. When reviews started to drop (namely Roger Ebert’s three and a half star rave), I accepted that it was me who simply didn’t get the film. I moved on and hadn’t thought about it since.

But in researching this post, I slowly made my way through Baumbach’s filmography. And upon finding a new appreciation for Kicking and Screaming, I decided to give Greenberg another go. The result was incredible. I quickly found myself loving so much about the movie. The editing of the kid’s birthday party scene (essentially the same “Hey, how have you been?” chit chat bullshit three times, but ingeniously cross cut together), Greenberg’s hilariously frantic coke binge, Rhys Ifans’ uniquely melancholic performance, and so much more. I also had a blast recognizing so many now-familiar faces, including Chris Messina, Merritt Wever, Mark Duplass, Brie Larson, Juno Temple, Dave Franco, and Zosia Mamet. Apparently it took five years of new life experiences for me to fully appreciate Greenberg. It still isn’t perfect, but who knows how I’ll feel about it in another five years. B

Frances Ha (2012)
Frances Ha is the movie that made me irrevocably fall in love with Noah Baumbach. The consumer-grade photography (via the Canon 5D Mark II), the black and white imagery achieved through a painstaking color grading process, the seamless editing (you’re having too much fun to realize how much time passes in the film), the hip music, and, of course, the whimsical title character played so well by co-writer Greta Gerwig.

Frances is lost in that familiar Baumbach way, but what distinguishes her from Baumbach’s other characters is her complete lack of malice. She’s a good woman in a big world, lost amongst the shuffle. Her naïveté is infuriating, but her innocence is captivating. I’ll never tire from watching Frances drift through New York, jumping from apartment to apartment, trying to find her place. And the film’s understated ending (of which Baumbach is a master of), is perfect. Everyone together, in support of their newly formed friend. You’re a real person now, Frances. Do enjoy it, my dear. A-

While We’re Young (2015)
While We’re Young is a fun hybrid of everything there is to love about Baumbach’s films. Married couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are increasingly confused by the world in which they live. They’re middle aged, but can’t identify with the married-with-children life their friends have. Josh, in particular, is stuck in a crisis. His inability to finish a documentary 12 years in the making is beginning to ruin him. Instead of asking for help, Josh’s arrogance fuels his rage. He insists that his choices (both in editing and in life) are always right, which leaves him beyond reproach.

Enter Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a twentysomething married couple who invigorate Josh and Cornelia’s lives. Days after meeting the young couple, Josh and Cornelia are changing the way the dress, changing what they eat, how they speak, what they do for fun. Their whole lives are uprooted in the best possible way. But soon, Josh is consumed by jealously and self-loathing, and he’s unable to fully adapt to his new lifestyle.

Stiller occasionally drifts toward Greenberg territory here, but his Josh is ultimately a much more approachable character. Watts fits seamlessly into Baumbach’s world, wisely injecting her hyper energy where she sees fit. I like the film well and good now, but if one thing about Baumbach’s work has proven to be true, it’s that I’ll likely appreciate the film even more down the line. B+

In Summation
Masterful
The Squid and the Whale

Great
Margot at the Wedding
Frances Ha
While We’re Young

Good
Kicking and Screaming
Greenberg

Eh
Mr. Jealousy

Just Plain Bad
Highball


40 comments:

  1. I really need to rewatch Greenberg and watch Kicking and Screaming, While We're Young and Mistress America.

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    1. I couldn't believe how much I liked Greenberg this time around. While We're Young is a lot of fun. Can't wait for Mistress America.

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  2. I have watched Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Frances Ha and While We're Young only. Frances Ha is one of my most favourite movies ever. It's magical. I think While We're Young is my least favourite of the ones I have seen (that last act was a bit stupid) but it was still pretty fun. I really want to watch Margot at the Wedding.

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    1. Stiller did go a little off the rails in that WWY's last act, but I did like the movie a lot overall. Margot is very polarizing, so I'd love to hear what you think. I actually think you might love Kidman in it. Or at least love to hate her.

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  3. I absolutely fell in love with Frances Ha! Got the Blu-ray for Christmas (hard to find) and could watch it every day, if that was feasible. While We're Young was sort of iffy. I did enjoy Stiller and Watts, but Adam Driver was just no fun. And, regardless of what character Driver is playing, you can usually count on him being fun.

    Anyway, The Squid and the Whale is on my DVR, and I'm hoping that I can convince my wife to watch it with me soon! I can't wait!

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    1. I couldn't fully get into Driver in WYY either. And I usually love the guy. But I dunno, something about his performance felt a tad false. Seyfried seemed much more confident with her performance.

      Squid is so good. The humor is so damn vicious.

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  4. I've only seen his movies from The Squid and the Whale to Frances Ha, but I loved each of them. I need to check out his earlier films. I had the same feelings you did about Greenberg, it was one of the few times I've ever felt like punching a character. Now, I really enjoy it a lot more. I also love his collabs with Wes Anderson (more so Fantastic Mr. Fox than Life Aquatic). I'm terribly excited for While We're Young and Mistress America.

    I remember my first experience with The Squid and the Whale. The first time I watched it, it was as if I was being suffocated and shut into this box. The biting realism was frightening to me, but I couldn't get enough of it. It felt like all of my fears and insecurities were looking at me right in the eye, but instead of me cowering in terror, but when Street Hassle began to play, I lifted my head and carried on, so to speak (wow, that doesn't make any sense at all lol). I can't really put my feelings in coherent sentences apart from that, but basically, The Squid and the Whale changed my life.

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    1. Error: there shouldn't be a 'but' after the cowering part.

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    2. No, no, the way you describe your reaction to Squid makes perfect sense. When we're lucky enough to feel that way during a film, it's very difficult to put it into words after. The first time I saw Warrior, I was so emotionally gutted that I convinced myself I didn't like it. It just hit too close for me. If I see a movie with someone, I love to talk about it after. But walking out of that movie with my then girlfriend, I couldn't even talk.

      It's scary to feel that way sometimes, but such is the power of film.

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  5. Having seen all but Mistress America (which I hope comes out later in the year), I pretty love a lot of his work with the exception of Highball as here is a list of all of the films I've seen from him so far as I'm always intrigued by his fascination about people growing up and such.

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    1. Great list. Frances Ha is so damn good. I'm really excited for Mistress America, really hoping that's released this year too.

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  6. Baumbach is a filmmaker I admire much more than I actually like. I think that he gets good performances out of actors and has an acerbic touch in his writing but generally I just find his writing/dialogue to come across to me as very pompous and pretentious. Having said that, I did genuinely like Frances Ha (I thought Gerwig was the actor who was able to best say his dialogue and make it sound natural and unpretentious. That may be because of her influence in writing it - idk, but that one worked for me the most of all the ones I have seen from him).
    I recently watched Kicking & Screaming and found it an incredibly boring film to sit though, and I hated every character. Maybe I'll have a similar experience to it as you did and I'll watch it in a few years and see it as brilliant but as of right now, it's easily one of the most annoying films I've had to sit through.

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    1. Ok - having just seen While We're Young, I will say that I did enjoy that one as well.

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    2. I totally agree that there is a pompousness to his writing. But I would argue that it is very intentional, which still doesn't make it necessarily enjoyable, but at least his pretentiousness is deliberate, you know?

      I felt the exact same way about Kicking & Screaming the first time I watched it. I thought most every character was absolutely deplorable. So strange that it works so well for me now. Crazy how that works.

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  7. The Squid and the Whale is definitely my favorite. I've always wanted to see Margot at the Wedding, but I've never gotten around to it.

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    1. Margot is suuuuch a bitch. I mean she's so bad, you almost can't help but be in awe of her haha. Would love to know what you think of it!

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  8. I was only just looking through your Directors' lists the other day for Noah Baumbach! I only saw Frances Ha last which, which I loved, but am yet to see his other films.

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    1. Love Frances. Do you enjoy that one? It's really unlike any of his other films, in the best possible way.

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    2. Yes I loved it! I can really see where Lena Dunham took the inspiration.

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    3. It's crazy that Girls and Frances Ha were made at the same time, independent of each other. So many similarities.

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  9. Of his films, The Squid and the Whale is the most enjoyable. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are fantastic. Also, Pink Floyd, Blue Velvet, Schoolhouse Rock and smeared semen...What more could you ask from a movie?

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    1. Haha exactly! I love how Daniels crashes their date and suggests Blue Velvet. Fucking hysterical.

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  10. Adding some of these to my list.

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  11. I've only seen The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha and While We're Young. I'll be honest...I found While We're Young such a hard watch; I couldn't get into it or enjoy the characters. Frances Ha was a complete gem.

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    1. I enjoyed WWY, but it wasn't Frances Ha good. Baumbach really doesn't create likable characters. Very ballsy character choices.

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  12. It took me ages to see Frances Ha. I loved Squid and the Whale and read Margot at the Wedding (I much preferred reading than watching that film) but I couldn't be bothered with Greenberg, the story just seemed run of the mill and I though that Frances Ha would be more of the same but having watched it last month, I love it! Think its got something to do with kinda feeling like Frances at the moment.

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    1. That's what can make his films so interesting, the fact that we feel like the characters as we're watching them. I totally get your Greenberg hate, but I'm thrilled that you like Frances. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  13. Frances Ha is probably my favorite on this nice list but I'm not a very good judge; it's the only one I've seen! :)

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    1. Ha, fair enough! Damn fine film though.

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  14. I need to see his earlier work...as I haven't seen anything pre-Squid...but that is SO GOOD. He's certainly talented and has such vision as a director. He knows what he wants to say and how he wants it to be said. His films have his stamp, which is very important as a director.

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    1. Hell yeah man, his flicks definitely have a stamp. And I always respect that in a filmmaker, even if I don't always identify with the style of the movies.

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  15. Like Fisti, I haven't seen his early work, but I a fan of everything else I've seen. I love Squid, Frances Ha, and even Greenberg, which I'm thrilled you appreciate more now. Can't wait to see While We're Young!

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    1. My Greenberg reversal was so bizarre. I had no idea I would like it as much as I do know. So cool when that happens. Can't wait to hear what you think of While We're Young.

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  16. I'm with you that Margot at the Wedding is very good (and underappreciated). Like you say Margot's character turned many viewers off, and I remember people complained Jack Black was miscast.
    I haven't seen his two films from 1997, Mr. Jealousy & Highball, looks like I'm not missing much there.

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    1. I'll admit, I do have a bit of trouble with Black in Margot, but I'm willing to forgive it, mostly because his "fight" with Ciarán Hinds is so funny.

      Unfortunately, you're definitely not missing much from his '97 work.

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  17. "And while the repulsiveness of the Margot character turned many viewers off, I’ve always found myself oddly compelled by Kidman’s dedicated work in the film." YES!!! I don't get why people can't separate their intense dislike of the character to appreciate how Kidman is playing the character, or what Baumbach is trying to say with the character. That notion of having to "care" for every character in a movie has never made sense to me and I always felt like Noah & Nicole were brilliantly skewering that very idea.

    Also, very impressed you've tracked down "Highball." Never had the guts to do it myself. I'm a huge Baumbach devotee and it's always scared me off. For me, "Frances Ha" & "Kicking and Screaming" (which has cult status amongst me and many of my friends) are the peaks, but I'm a fan of his for life. Great work, Alex, as always.

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    1. I watched Highball on Google Play the other week. I was definitely scared of it as well, but I'm glad I finally saw it, if for no other reason than to say I have haha.

      Dude, 1,000 times YES to your "care" comment. I too will never understand why some viewers have to like or care about character in order to fully appreciate a film. That was the main criticism that most detractors of Rust and Bone had, that they couldn't get into love story about miserable people. Which is, of course, the exact reason I loved it. Down and out people need love too, you know?

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  18. I have only seen Greenberg of his movies. Well, half of it. I turned it of half way through. Didn't really like that one much. Maybe i should give it another chance like you did. I have always wanted to see The Squid and the Whale though, but never really gotten around to it.

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    1. Obviously, I totally understand why you turned Greenberg off. If I hadn't seen it in the theater first, I probably would've cut it as well. But man, the reversal I had with that one is insane. Definitely check out Squid when you can. It's a gem.

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