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 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
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-
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 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
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 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 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 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+
The Squid and the Whale
Margot at the Wedding
While We’re Young
Kicking and Screaming
Just Plain Bad