Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach with Jennifer Jason Leigh

Noah Baumbach with Greta Gerwig

The Essentials: The Films Of Noah Baumbach - The Playlist  Jessica Kiang, Nicholas Laskin, and Rodrigo Perez, August 12, 2015

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.

Why do we put up with the narcissists and misanthropes who populate ...   Why do we put up with the narcissists, misanthropes, and passive-aggressives who populate Noah Baumbach's films? by Jessica Winter from Slate, March 18, 2010

A clever fillip of therapy-speak pops up a couple of times in Greenberg, the new movie by Noah Baumbach: “Hurt people hurt people.” (The first hurt is an adjective, the second a verb.) The phrase could also double as an epigraph for the writer-director’s entire filmography. No American auteur is more attuned to the art of emotional warfare, and none has more intestinal fortitude for placing neurotic, infuriating, occasionally insufferable characters on-screen and daring us to relate to them. While other directors draw from a more palatable menu of character attributes (charm, charisma, chemistry …), Baumbach makes his cinematic home among the narcissists, misanthropes, and passive-aggressives. Which may leave some viewers wondering: If these are the hard cases whom we give a wide berth in real life, why would we want to spend two hours with them in the close quarters of a movie theater? 

Consider, for example, the petulant misfit Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a 40-year-old carpenter who’s taking a post-breakdown sabbatical by housesitting for his wealthy brother in Los Angeles. He’s not the most appalling protagonist Baumbach has ever conjured—that honor still belongs to Nicole Kidman’s venomous title character in Margot at the Wedding (2007). But Roger does exhibit all the symptoms of an emblematic Baumbach creature: lacking a filter between his thoughts and words, arrogant yet cripplingly insecure, forever aggrieved (Roger writes endless letters of complaint to Starbucks, American Airlines, and other corporate entities that displease him) and forever giving grief. He pursues a listless affair with his brother’s personal assistant, the sweetly diffident Florence (Greta Gerwig), and uneasily reconnects with his old friend and former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans); the way Roger both clings to and abuses these two lovely people is a window on his gnarled and vividly Baumbachian inner life. But the filmmaker also tries to locate our empathy for Roger, or even our love—albeit a rueful, against-your-better-judgment love, the kind you feel for the sibling who’s a walking DSM-IV or the trainwreck college friend whom you just can’t shake. 

Painfully adrift and still mortified that he sabotaged his band’s only shot at a record deal some 15 years back, Roger has an embarrassingly protracted strain of the post-college angst that Baumbach explored in the spiky comedy Kicking and Screaming (1995). The director’s debut feature is set among a flinty, hyper-verbose clique of twentysomethings who seem, like Roger, perpetually annoyed: The comforts of a shared history have curdled into claustrophobia, and the candor of tight camaraderie has begun to shade into nastiness. One friend hisses at another, “We’ve developed such a weak, pathetic familiarity that talking to you is like talking to myself”—an insult that stings only if the speaker feels weak and pathetic himself. 

Baumbach’s characters are plagued by that bugaboo of the therapist’s office: a lack of boundaries. There’s no fixed borderline between self and other (in 1997’s Mr. Jealousy, Eric Stoltz assumes a friend’s identity to infiltrate a therapy group, of all things) and certainly no checkpoint between brain and mouth. In Kicking and Screaming, a recently divorced dad played by Elliott Gould blathers to his mortified son, Grover (Josh Hamilton), about losing his erection on a date. This queasy blast of fatherly TMI seems almost tame compared to the transgressions of fading novelist Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) in The Squid and the Whale (2005). It’s one thing to invite your teenage son to sit in on your writing class the day that vampy undergrad Lili (Anna Paquin) workshops her dire erotica. It’s quite another to ask your kid afterward, “Did you get that she was talking about her cunt?” 

A semiautobiographical portrait of a splintering Brooklyn family, The Squid and the Whale is the Baumbach film in which the perils of over-identification are most poignant. Though young Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is literally sprinting away from his father’s influences by the finale, for most of the film he idealizes Bernard: lapping up his line on the divorce (all Mom’s fault), letting him tag along on dates, and internalizing his literary tastes so credulously that he doesn’t feel compelled to read the books in question. (Walt describes The Metamorphosis to a classmate as “Kafka-esque.”) Roger Greenberg has a mentoring streak, too: In his first encounter with Florence, he plays Albert Hammond’s ‘70s soft-rock hit “It Never Rains in Southern California” and explains, “You have to see past the kitsch.” (One can picture Walt Berkman testing that line on a girl in a dorm room some sultry night.) Even the mix CD Roger burns for Florence smacks of pedantry—a way to make up her mind, so that talking to Florence feels like talking to himself. 

Baumbach’s characters (the men especially) feel safest when they’re putting thoughts and experience between quotation marks; the burden is on others to hop onto their ironic wavelength, to “get it.” In Margot at the Wedding, Margot’s future brother-in-law Malcolm (Jack Black) grows a cheesy mustache that’s “supposed to be funny”; in Greenberg, Roger clarifies that he and Ivan address each other as “Man” because “that’s what other people say.” Squid’s Bernard can turn a medical crisis into a movie reference: As he’s loaded onto an ambulance after a heart scare, he quotes the famously ambiguous last scene from Godard’s Breathless, then explicates the citation to his puzzled audience.

A Baumbach protagonist wears his pretensions like armor, but the pose of detachment is also the stance of the fiction writer or critic (incidentally, Baumbach is the son of both), who benefits from a ruthless facility for treating events and people as potential content to be appropriated or evaluated. 

Kicking and Screaming and Margot at the Wedding both feature skirmishes over rights to real-life material (“We’ll see who gets it first,” Grover tells his girlfriend sternly), but the instinct extends past the page. In The Squid and the Whale, Walt presses pause on a makeout session with his endearingly Florence-like girlfriend, Sophie (Halley Feiffer), to comment that she has too many freckles on her face. In Margot at the Wedding, Margot scrutinizes her son Claude (Zane Pais) like a casting agent, cringing at his new sunglasses (“They make your face look too wide”) and lamenting the loss of his “more graceful” pre-pubescent body. (One shudders to think of Margot with a daughter.) The heart sinks, not least because Baumbach grasps that such offhand cruelty is born of sad isolation. When everyone around you is just a canvas for your own insecurities and pathologies, can you be any lonelier? 

There’s another problem with treating the people in your life as short-story fodder or as characters in the movie unspooling in your mind: They might start thinking for themselves and reciting lines you didn’t write for them. When Greenberg’s Florence says that she likes spending time with Roger, his response is apoplectic: “You don’t like it!” he screams. It’s an absurd outburst, but one that a narcissist consumed with self-loathing feels in his blood and bones. He can’t imagine anyone not thinking what he’s thinking—and haven’t so many of us been there, at least once or twice in our lives? Baumbach’s malcontents may drive us crazy, but they always retain a measure of sympathy and humanity because they are extreme manifestations of a universal dilemma: the impossibility of escaping one’s own head.

Noah Baumbach, 'Frances Ha,' and the Futility of Post-Woody ...  Andrew Lapin on the influence of Woody Allen on Baumbach from Tablet, June 3, 2013

Frances Ha, the latest film from writer-director Noah Baumbach, is shot in gorgeous black-and-white, with a score by French New Wave composer Georges Delerue, against which a neurotic young artist in New York channels her deepest insecurities into nebbishy monologues. Baumbach’s current squeeze Greta Gerwig co-wrote the script and stars in the film, and her performance blends the emotional delicacy of Mia Farrow with the daffy, la-dee-da spontaneity of Diane Keaton.

If this sounds like a Woody Allen film, it’s because there’s more than a little Allen in Baumbach. But Baumbach isn’t out to emulate his predecessor; he wants to decimate him.

The implicit promise of a Woody Allen film is that, if you are a well-read, culturally astute member of the creative profession with a decent grasp of rhetoric, there will be a captive audience for your airing of grievances. It’s a promise that has inspired legions of admirers among the intelligentsia, as well as its fair share of dissidents. (Joan Didion is among the most prominent of the latter: She delivered a broadside against Allen’s work in a 1979 article in the New York Review of Books, ringing the alarm bells on characters she saw as “acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life” with a “peculiar and hermetic self-regard.”) Baumbach, 43, seems similarly influenced: He came into adolescence during Allen’s golden age in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the era of Manhattan, Annie Hall, and Stardust Memories—the films from which Baumbach’s latest movie borrows much of its casing.

But there’s a key difference between Alvy Singer’s hermetic self-regard and Frances’. For all the other flaws they exhibited, Allen’s alter egos were sought-after for their wry and insightful witticisms. Indeed, their thoughts were so prized and universally loved that the protagonists were tasked with speaking engagements (Annie Hall) and weekends with adoring fans (Stardust Memories), which they came to dread. In Frances Ha, few have the patience for the modern dancer’s musings—an acquaintance rejects her childlike attempts at humor, her best friend seethes quietly through a drunken tantrum, and the hosts of a dinner party she attends can barely stomach her loopy monologues on the true meaning of connection. Frances’ conversational partners often carry the vague, shifty air of people who are hoping that no one sees them talking to her.

The lack of interest that Frances’ contemporaries show in her stems from a great number of things: She’s homeless, unemployed, and perpetually broke; she’s emotionally stunted; she falls on the pavement while running to an ATM mid-date and fails to notice her open wound until her date points it out. Oddly for a dancer, she seems barely aware of the ground underneath her own feet. But her chief folly seems to be that she bought into Allen’s promise of redemption through existential attitude. She fantasizes about one day “taking over the world” armed with honorary degrees; she thinks she can achieve artistic heights by living inside his bubble.

In fact, Frances looks relatively well-adjusted when compared to the leads of Baumbach’s other movies. His work is full of intellectuals who seem to have picked up bad habits from good films: They are either sociopaths (Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding), sad sacks (Kicking and Screaming), or tormented by psychological hang-ups (Mr. Jealousy). Sometimes they are all of the above. The hermetic self-regard of these characters is pushed to 11: They’re incapable of detecting when their company is not wanted. Whereas Allen’s characters usually start at the top, Baumbach’s rarely, if ever, find professional success. Yet they presume to possess worldliness, and name-drop critiques of books they haven’t read alongside thoughts on places they’ve never visited—taking their cues from Allen’s promise that they will be heard, though they don’t have much to say. As the lead character in Greenberg (2010), played by Ben Stiller, explains, “A shrink said to me once that I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because I felt like I never really lived it in the first place.”

Greenberg’s vision of the past is a notably incomplete one; he ignores the fact that the Jewish neurotic way of life was pulled out of the realm of self-seriousness more than a decade ago, by the most popular sitcom on TV. Jerry Seinfeld, telegraphing his every concern not only to the invented world of his program but also to a live studio audience primed for laughter, is the inflection point between Allen and Baumbach. Seinfeld elevated each petty dilemma (stolen vending machine candy, stuck in the queue at a Chinese restaurant) to the level of full-blown histrionics, exposing with good humor the kind of rote and inconsequential territory the Jewish intellectual’s mind often wanders into. (His schlemiel partner-in-crime Larry David pushes the conceit even further on Curb Your Enthusiasm, doubling down on Allen’s narcissism but trading in the fantasy world of support for a bubbling stew of negative energy from supporting players.) Baumbach’s characters, by appropriating Allen’s worries without Seinfeld’s goofy grin, are making themselves out to be purists of persnicketiness, pretending their own personal Show About Nothing is more than just that.

A Baumbach picture is as relentless as an action flick when it comes to depicting its pervasive air of social unease: He never lets you forget how uncomfortable it is to listen to someone deliver a reference-laced monologue in everyday conversation. Like Allen, Baumbach undergoes therapy, and also like Allen, he jumped from one actress-muse romantic partner (ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, who starred in Margot at the Wedding) to another (Gerwig, whom he first cast in Greenberg). But unlike Allen—the college-dropout son of an engraver and a bookkeeper—Baumbach grew up in a proudly intellectual family. His novelist/scholar father Jonathan Baumbach (who is Jewish) and film-critic mother Georgia Brown (who is Protestant) apparently love high culture but hate each other (at least as depicted in Squid). There’s a note of irony that the filmmaker with the working-class upbringing should be the one to envision a world where clinically depressed intellectuals are revered, while the one nurtured by intellectuals prefers a world where well-read malcontents are pariahs.

Why does Baumbach enjoy subverting Allen’s utopia of Jewish slapstick iconoclasm? In some respects, Baumbach is just setting the world right again: Logically, we should feel repulsed by the Woody Allen archetype, even though we don’t (whether we should feel repulsed by the real-life Allen’s behavior is a different debate). Just look at how his own scripts describe him: “He was given to fits of rage, Jewish liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, and nihilistic moods of despair,” his Manhattan ex-wife (Meryl Streep) declares. “He had complaints about life but never any solutions. He longed to be an artist, but balked at the necessary sacrifices.”

The willingness to make sacrifices should be an essential trait in any sympathetic protagonist, so the fact that we let this slide with Allen (who, unlike Seinfeld or David, we’re unquestionably meant to root for) is worth pondering. We buy into Allen’s balking state of mind because he surrounds himself with people who buy into it as well, and it comforts us that a man who indulges in so many of his worst impulses could also be so smart, successful, sensitive and witty. When Allen says that his masturbation is “sex with someone I love,” it’s an admission of his intense narcissism—but it’s also funny, and he invites us to laugh, and so we laugh.

Baumbach strips that cushion away. His heroes do nothing but balk at necessary sacrifices. Greenberg turned down a shot at music stardom in his 20s and now spends his days ranting at the wind. In Squid, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) humiliates himself at a school talent show by passing off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own song, insisting, “I could have written it.” For her part, Frances refuses to accept the fact that her best friend and only support system (Mickey Sumner) is drifting away from her, insisting to anyone who will listen, “Her and I are the same person but with different hair.”

What interests Baumbach is the spiritual poison that comes with trying to float through life in a state of suspended maturity. His characters believe in Allen’s self-serving promise, in the idea that one can read and sigh and kvetch all day and still find close approximations of happiness and success. But unlike Allen’s, Seinfeld’s, or David’s characters, they haven’t earned anything: They didn’t fight tooth and nail to get to where they are, and they are more likely than not to squander the opportunities available to them—as when Frances scores a Paris loft for a weekend but sleeps through her entire stay.

In recent years Allen has retreated, becoming a citizen of the world rather than solely of his own head. Still, his anachronistic promise of pontificating-to-riches is still intact: It can be seen in his 2011 megahit Midnight in Paris, when whiny time-traveling novelist Owen Wilson, counting Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein among his support group, couldn’t fathom a fate worse than penning screenplays. Allen’s most recent film, To Rome With Love, even had a thankless supporting part for Gerwig as the too-good girlfriend of her fellow Baumbach-movie alum Eisenberg. Her cheery blandness gives her neurotic partner leeway to satisfy his romantic urges with another woman, which is how relationships tend to fall apart in Allen’s films.

Meanwhile, Frances will dance through the streets of New York, young and bursting with a wealth of thoughts but no clue. She’s another wandering member of Noah Baumbach’s Lost Tribe, in search of a hermetically sealed fantasyland that was promised to her by the pied piper of Manhattan.

Happiness - The New Yorker  Baumbach profile from Ian Parker, April 29, 2013 

 Noah Baumbach, the writer and director, has been more willing than most to think of his films of the past decade—about disappointment, broken families, dying pets—as comedies. When “Greenberg” opened, in 2010, the spectacle of Ben Stiller as a sour, haunted man—an asshole in a down vest—was so off-putting, to some people, that one cinema posted a sign reading, “We must limit refunds to an hour past the start time.” A few years earlier, during a panel that followed a screening of “Margot at the Wedding,” an audience member compared Nicole Kidman’s character, a self-involved fiction writer, to Hitler’s mother. Baumbach recently told me that in 2005, when he began previewing “The Squid and the Whale,” which is based on memories of his parents’ divorce, he was “expecting more laughs.” He also recalled that, while showing the film to his mother, he began sobbing and had to leave the screening room.

Not long ago, at dusk, Baumbach was in an elegant old café in Berlin, having a jet-lagged late lunch with Greta Gerwig, the actress, before a festival screening of “Frances Ha,” his new film. A black-and-white comedy about young people in New York, it is filled with such a sweetly unfamiliar spirit of joy—or, at least, the prospect that life may hold satisfactions beyond survival—that Baumbach purists may dismiss the film as evidence of the kind of midlife giddiness that can lead to kite-surfing. 

“Frances Ha” is generous—some critics may say indulgent—in its handling of hip, floating characters who could easily be satirized. Baumbach, who is forty-three, with the collar-length, well-tended hair of a less worried man, seems to have made his “Manhattan,” and he has done so in partnership with Gerwig, who co-wrote the film and plays Frances, a dancer. Baumbach and Gerwig met when he cast her alongside Stiller in “Greenberg”; later, Baumbach separated from Jennifer Jason Leigh, his partner of nine years, and he and Gerwig became both a couple and a writing team. They kept this fairly quiet. When I first met them, in February, they had barely acknowledged their relationship in public, and they had not disclosed that, after finishing “Frances Ha,” they co-wrote a second New York film—something “looser and wonkier,” in Baumbach’s words—and worked together on a cartoon feature, now in development at DreamWorks Animation, about a woeful dog.

In the time that it took Gerwig to drink two beers, Baumbach weighed the case for ordering a glass of wine. They talked about the self-consciousness of Stiller’s character in “Greenberg,” and their own.

Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento, said, “When I was a kid, I used to do my homework in the living room, where there was a picture window. I was hoping that someone would walk by and see me looking very studious in my living room.”

“I know that,” Baumbach said; he had experienced that sense of an imaginary audience, if not the suburban peace of mind. “When I was a kid, I would fantasize about my own funeral.”

Baumbach has a wary gaze and speaks in careful loops of retraction and calibration; it’s hard to imagine that he spent years doing improvised comedy, during and after college. He has a long, square-chinned face whose handsomeness he is said to recognize but not overprize. (“He treats it like he has a good computer,” Gerwig said.) When striving for clarity, he wiggles the fingers of one hand, but he is otherwise still. Gerwig, who is twenty-nine, also has a precise, literate mind, but she is more buoyant, and sometimes has the air, not uncommon among her contemporaries, of having swallowed a very low dose of LSD. Baumbach’s eyebrows are usually down, and Gerwig’s are up, over a pale, large-featured, casually glamorous face. It annoys her a little to be mistaken for the screwball she has sometimes played in movies, instead of being seen as an adept physical comedian. But, even when she’s off-camera, there is a lot going on: nods, ironic frowns, waist-height waves. One morning, Gerwig and I failed in an attempt to shake hands, our palms sailing past each other in the ornate lobby of Baumbach’s apartment building, on lower Fifth Avenue.

In Berlin, they recalled a recent evening when they had come across “Greenberg” on TV, and watched for a few minutes. Gerwig was the first to protest. As Baumbach recalled, “I was thinking, This seems pretty good.” He laughed. “You said, ‘If you’re going to watch this, I’m going to leave the room.’ ”

As Gerwig later pointed out, Baumbach’s films tend to begin with a sly signpost of the story to come. “The Squid and the Whale” starts with a family of four on a tennis court, and a young boy saying, “Mom and me versus you and Dad.” “Greenberg” opens with Gerwig’s character, an unmoored personal assistant in Los Angeles, walking a dog, then driving. The Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner” plays, breezily, on the soundtrack. As she tries to switch lanes in traffic, she quietly addresses another car, in the film’s first line of dialogue: “Are you going to let me in?”

Watching this on TV, Gerwig could cope with the driving sequence, but when the scene changed—a party, a hookup—all she could see was acting. “I’m embarrassed by how hard I try, how much I go for it,” Gerwig said. “It’s as if you had access to a love letter you wrote a long time ago and—oh, Jesus!—even if you’re proud of it . . .”

By the standards of independent cinema, “Greenberg” was an acceptable commercial success, and it boosted the career of Gerwig, who previously had been in very low-budget and often improvised mumblecore films, like “Baghead.” After “Greenberg,” she worked with Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, and appeared in a remake of “Arthur.” But “Greenberg,” by not becoming a big hit despite the presence of Stiller, felt a little like a failure. “Some of the independent movies that make money have a very specific thing that you can tell audiences they’ll feel about it,” Gerwig said. “ ‘This will make you feel so happy.’ ‘This will make you feel something about your family.’ And anything that’s not that, if it’s ‘This will make you feel perhaps uncomfortable about choices you’ve made in your life’—”

“I like the ‘perhaps,’ ” Baumbach said, with a quiet laugh. “We’re not even guaranteeing that.”
“ ‘This will touch your deep feelings of failure and unworthiness,’ ” Gerwig added, and then remembered her father’s response to the film. “He said, ‘You know they play that Steve Miller song in the beginning? You think, This is really gonna make you feel great.’ ” She laughed. “He was ‘Yes!’ and then ‘What?’ ”

“Frances Ha,” Baumbach said, was like “if the song kept going—if you kept driving, and that Steve Miller song just kept going.”

Instead of “Action!,” Baumbach says, “Begin,” or “When you’re ready,” and then sits motionless but for a movement in his mouth, as if his tongue were searching for a missing tooth. Late one evening in March, he was on a sidewalk in the East Village, shooting a scene for the second film he has written with Gerwig. Still untitled, it will be released next year, in color, with Gerwig as a dauntless New York striver, and Lola Kirke—the twenty-two-year-old sister of Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa on HBO’s “Girls”—as a Barnard undergraduate in awe of her. Baumbach compared the movie to “The Great Gatsby” and Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.” When it is completed, Baumbach and Gerwig will have made two films in which there’s barely a kiss on-camera. Such restraint, however, won’t block all comparisons to “Girls” (bright young women, New York).

As in 2011, when he shot “Frances Ha,” Baumbach was working with a digital camera, in a low-key, almost covert way. There was nothing about the project in Variety or on IMDb. For the permit paperwork, Baumbach had chosen a misleading and dull working title: “Untitled Public School Project.” (“Frances Ha” was “Untitled Digital Workshop.”) New York pedestrians know that a film production involves, at the least, a basket of unripe fruit under a white tent, and a lot of cables. In the absence of that—a small huddle around a camera, in the dark, as Kirke hurried across the street toward Gerwig, at a flower stand—Baumbach’s operation was almost invisible. A passerby explained knowingly to his friends, “This is N.Y.U.-land.”

Baumbach had compared his process to that of a student film, but he had added, “Of course it’s not, at all.” He is a fastidious and formal director, with an educated sense of the American and European canon and his possible place in it. He expects actors to say the lines he wrote for them, and to say them again and again. After the flower stand, the crew moved into Veselka, the twenty-four-hour restaurant on Second Avenue, which remained open to customers while Baumbach filmed until just before dawn. (Around 3 A.M., Kirke yawned and Baumbach called out, “No tiredness!”)

Even a modest independent film can cost more than a hundred thousand dollars a day; “Frances Ha” cost a fraction of that. Actors in “Untitled Public School Project” changed clothes in a van parked on Sixth Street. Baumbach has discovered that elective frugality gives him power. By working with a tiny crew, and by asking people to accept a percentage of the film’s earnings rather than up-front fees, he can impersonate Stanley Kubrick: he can afford to keep a production going week after week, revisit material that turned out badly, and fly to Paris to film a six-minute sequence. One recent day, he did fifty-five takes of Gerwig and Kirke searching through a closet. (Gerwig now finds it unnerving to do just five or so takes for another director: “I don’t know that we’ve actually thought about it enough.”)

Early one morning, Baumbach was in a modern house by a reservoir in Mt. Kisco, New York, shooting a scene for “Untitled Public School Project.” Gerwig’s character was visiting a wealthy ex-boyfriend and his wife, to ask them to invest in a restaurant that she wanted to open in the city. Kirke was also in the scene. The ex-boyfriend, self-conscious about his suburban life, reminisced about his days as a college-radio d.j., and rooted around for ancient weed in the back of the freezer. For much of the day, Baumbach gently urged his actors to speed up: “Don’t be polite about other people’s lines.” Breaking from his usual composure, he demonstrated how to dart up a flight of stairs and then turn and descend, all in one comic, high-kneed movement.

For Baumbach, who has often found dry, witty ways to tell stories of bourgeois inertia, this material had unusual bounce. “The whole sequence is sort of designed like an Ernst Lubitsch movie,” he said to me. “The trick is to hold this kind of style in a movie that also has Lola’s character, alone, in college—things that feel more realistic.” Later, he added, “If ‘Frances’ is a three-and-a-half-minute pop song, this is a five-and-a-half-minute song. Not that the movie will be longer; it’s like that thing of ‘Oh, you pulled off that organ solo in the middle.’ ” He went on, “We’re going for laughs more. Maybe. As much as we go for them.”

They worked for about ten hours. Between takes, there were stretches of silence. Baumbach had murmuring consultations with his co-writer; at one point, he put his hand an inch away from her lower back, without touching her.

“Movie time is like college time,” Baumbach said.

“Days are slow and months are fast?” Gerwig asked.

“If you had a test on Thursday, Friday felt so far away.”

The cinematographer, Sam Levy—at thirty-nine, Baumbach’s oldest colleague in the room—took responsibility that day for hair and makeup. The production designer drove the minivan that brought Baumbach and his actors back to Manhattan. In the passenger seat, Baumbach evaluated possible posters for “Frances Ha”—all of them using an image of Gerwig, caught in a modern-dance leap, by the fountain in City Hall Park. He then began a call with Scott Rudin, his producer, about the casting of a film, “While We’re Young,” that he will direct, this fall, in a much less pared-down way. The script, which he wrote a few years ago, is about two New York couples, one in their early forties, the other in their twenties. Stiller will play the older man, a painstaking documentary filmmaker, who becomes entranced by how lightly the younger man treats the enterprise of creative work. As Baumbach put it, “The young guy sees it all as collage. There’s no genius—you just take what’s useful and you put it all together.” The screenplay is “about realizing that you’re not the young people anymore.” (Rudin told me that Baumbach is “tremendously good at turning psychology into behavior.”)

On the phone, Baumbach resisted the suggestion of a particular actress for the role of Stiller’s wife, calling her work “too manicured.” As he talked, Lola Kirke, two rows behind, described, drowsily and half-seriously, a manicure that she planned to get when the movie was finished: a happy face on one finger, a cannabis leaf on the next, and so on. Gerwig, who at times served as a generational liaison between Baumbach and Kirke, said, affably, “What are you, fourteen?”

Baumbach was still on the phone—“No, not her. Not for this”—when the van stopped in midtown, in front of a building where DreamWorks has an office, and moments later he and Gerwig were in a bare, well-lit room, videoconferencing with executives in California about whether or not cartoon dogs should be seen in hats.

This is Baumbach’s third animated film. He co-wrote Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), based on the Roald Dahl novel. For a children’s film, it has unusually strong notes of melancholy: at one point, Mrs. Fox tells her husband, “I love you, but I never should have married you.” A year later, he rewrote “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” for DreamWorks—a lighter assignment, encouraged by Stiller, who plays the franchise’s lion hero. Baumbach and Gerwig’s screenplay, not yet fully green-lit, is about a Brooklyn mutt, Freddy, who becomes separated from a young girl named Heidi when her parents divorce. Artists in California had sketched a few sequences and showed this material to Baumbach and Gerwig, who were delighted. Baumbach, who plans to direct the film, gave notes, including “The squirrel seems . . . not necessary” and “I love the mustache.” He wondered if it was still realistic to show home delivery of newspapers. Gerwig said, gently, “It’s pretend. Dogs also don’t talk.”

Baumbach and Gerwig then read aloud from a scene that was soon to be storyboarded. Freddy has set off to look for Heidi, who may be in Manhattan, and he has met a guide called Wise Dog, who imagines himself to be sophisticated. Together, they reach the top of a building under construction in Brooklyn. “A blinding light comes through the door,” Baumbach said. “They would approach the edge of the building, and, as their eyes adjust to the light, you’d see Manhattan in the background and the little dogs looking at it.”

Gerwig read Wise Dog’s line: “Every time, it takes my breath away. This, and side two of Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story.’ ” (Baumbach later said, “Let’s see if that line makes it into the multiplex.”)

Baumbach continued, “Then Wise Dog says to Freddy, ‘So that’s where you want to go, huh? Manhattan?’ ”

Gerwig read Freddy’s line: “That’s where Heidi is. That’s where I need to be. I know I’m meant to be with her again. I feel her love all around me. And, with every step and every breath, I love her more.”

Although “Frances Ha” surprises with its optimism, it is driven by familiar Baumbach questions: How do people leave their twenties behind? How hard is it to abandon a version of oneself into which one has put some effort? Frances, twenty-seven, is underemployed as a dancer, and she reacts poorly when Sophie, her best friend, played by Mickey Sumner, evolves into someone who has things to do that don’t include her. Frances runs out of money. She’s in motion—switching apartments, changing day jobs—but making no progress. She is given the test that Roger Greenberg apparently failed: in his twenties, he messed up a potential career in pop music, and his life stopped. In “Greenberg,” we meet him at forty.

That late-twenties moment is still vivid to Baumbach, and part of the charm of “Frances Ha” has to do with the way it combines, in one character, a partial self-portrait of two writers, from two generations. If “Girls” describes the life of a certain kind of mid-twenties New Yorker, “Frances Ha” overlays that experience with memory, and the result is as romantic as a forgotten pop song that, years later, revives a place and a mood. The sensation is enhanced by a soundtrack featuring seventies acts like Hot Chocolate and Harry Nilsson.

“At the Frances age, I was kind of agonized,” Baumbach said recently. Brought up in a bookish Brooklyn family, he attended Vassar, and worked as a messenger at this magazine; by the age of twenty-seven, he had made “Kicking and Screaming” and “Mr. Jealousy,” two commercially released films about talky young men in sports jackets. (A third film, “Highball”—shot in six days—was released on video, against Baumbach’s wishes.) Although his two early releases were, at times, infected with the glibness of Woody Allen’s lesser work, they were fairly well received, and “Kicking and Screaming” became a cult favorite, released on DVD by Criterion. But Baumbach felt unsatisfied. “I was ridiculously young. I felt so old,” he told me. He has a rather pitiful memory of flying back to New York from the Toronto Film Festival, hauling the reels of “Mr. Jealousy,” which had failed to impress a distributor. “My persona was, Everything’s O.K., I’m right on track. I was so afraid to admit that I was disappointed or upset.”

By then, he had met Wes Anderson, who became a close friend and a collaborator. “Rushmore,” Anderson’s second movie, was released in 1998, a year after “Mr. Jealousy.” “I saw that he really was doing what was interesting to him, and he was trusting that that would be interesting to other people,” Baumbach said on a rainy afternoon, when we met at Bar Pitti, in the West Village. “Mr. Jealousy” was “kind of personal, but kind of genre-y”—a romantic comedy. “And I saw ‘Rushmore’ and I thought, He’s comfortable making his own genre.” Anderson released “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004)—which he co-wrote with Baumbach, largely in Bar Pitti—before Baumbach finished his next film.

After “Mr. Jealousy,” Baumbach started therapy, though he feared that it would disrupt mysterious paths of creativity. He discovered that the process let him write. “It was a huge change in my life,” he said. “I was less afraid to be embarrassed.” In the first of three scripts apparently connected to therapeutic discoveries, he reëxamined his teen-age years without his usual self-protective equanimity.

The final script of “The Squid and the Whale” was fiction, but the first outpouring was pure memoir. In the nineteen-eighties, Baumbach, the older of two brothers, was an assured, popular student at Midwood High School. According to his longtime friend Matthew Kaplan, Baumbach had little doubt that he would become a filmmaker: “He’d say, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ ” His father, Jonathan Baumbach, taught at Brooklyn College, published experimental fiction, and had written about film in Partisan Review. His mother, Georgia Brown, also published fiction; she was later a film critic at the Village Voice. The family lived in Park Slope. (Thanks to a location scout who happened to knock, the Baumbachs’ dining room appears in “Heartburn,” when Meryl Streep pushes a Key-lime pie into Jack Nicholson’s face.) One evening, when Noah was fourteen, his parents asked him to make sure that he came straight home after seeing a movie with friends. He knew what was coming. “I watched ‘Romancing the Stone,’ knowing my fate,” he recalled. Back at the house, he began to cry even before the announcement was made: his parents were separating, and his father was moving to a house across the park, where the boys would sleep on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and every other Thursday. That awkward custody arrangement was unchanged in the movie.

It was not a remarkable story, but Baumbach’s sardonic screenplay, which was nominated for an Oscar, was clear-eyed about the sorrows and pretensions of adolescence, and it created, in the figure of the father, a singularly uneasy egotist. After years of trying to raise funds, Baumbach eventually shot it in twenty-three days, “in a kind of fever dream.” Jeff Daniels played the father; Laura Linney the mother. Baumbach had not shown the script to his parents, who until then had read everything he wrote, although he did give a cameo to his father. When Noah showed the film to his mother, he recalled, “It was like a cat bringing a dead bird as if it was a present. It was a tribute, but it was also a rebellion.”

The film was released in 2005. Baumbach found it painful to read reviews that noted only the parents’ flaws: the narcissism of the father, the blitheness of the mother. Baumbach now regrets that he didn’t include a few more notes of homage. “My dad was a great movie companion,” he told me. “He wouldn’t diminish ‘The Jerk.’ If I liked it, he liked it. He could see it through my eyes.”

Georgia Brown lives for much of the year in Italy. When she was in New York a few weeks ago, I visited her house in the West Village and was introduced to Michael Cary, her partner, a retired architect and high-school teacher, who in “The Squid and the Whale” was reinvented as a tennis pro, played by William Baldwin.

Brown was wearing the kind of outfit that her son wears: a gray cardigan over a white shirt. She recalled a scene in the film where Frank, the younger of the two boys, returns unexpectedly to his mother’s house one evening. She comes downstairs, half-dressed, followed by the tennis pro—“What’s up, brother?”—and Frank learns of the romance. Brown said that this was based on a real incident, but that it had been Noah, not his younger brother, who had come back to the house. “It was when I was first going out with Michael, and the kids were supposed to be at their dad’s. I could hear somebody in the kitchen, and I came downstairs and said, ‘Oh, Noah, I have to tell you that there’s somebody here with me.’ And he looked up with this radiant smile and said, ‘Mom, that’s just like in the movies!’ And then he put it into a movie.” She laughed.

She found the film “an immense, and delightful, therapeutic triumph,” but was initially shocked by the representation of Walt, the older boy, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Whereas Noah had been so charismatic at that age, she said, Walt was “tense, humorless, somewhat sycophantic.” One could also say that he was scathing, especially toward his mother—“You disgust me”—but Brown didn’t see him that way. She described Noah’s shaping of Walt as a brave creative choice. I asked if the film had shown her that Noah was less happy at the time than she had realized, and the question seemed to surprise her a little. “I’ll think about it,” she said. Later, she e-mailed a response: “You mustn’t assume that my picture of real-life Noah as this charming, quietly hilarious, confident boy underestimates the boy’s capacity for spite, fury, and, most especially, grief.”

Baumbach was slightly taken aback by his mother’s recollection of the staircase incident. He recalls extreme discomfort. Although he may have said something about movies, he told me, any smile would have been counterfeit.

Jonathan Baumbach claims to have taken Noah to Truffaut’s “The Wild Child” when he was two. (“Maybe five,” Noah told me.) He described the teen-age Noah as “extremely confident and poised—but, you know, poise often hides a certain anxiety.” When Jonathan first saw “The Squid and the Whale” (for which Jeff Daniels borrowed his brown corduroy jacket), he left the screening room feeling anxious but “got over it very quickly.” His son called, half an hour later, “wanting to know why I hadn’t already responded to the film.” He added, “Noah’s joke is that ‘The Squid and the Whale’ was me at my worst, ‘Margot’ was Georgia at her worst, and ‘Greenberg’ was him at his worst.”

Late one night, in Berlin, Baumbach and Gerwig had drinks with Scott Foundas, a friend who is a film critic and a former programmer at the New York Film Festival. The conversation touched on “Margot at the Wedding” (2007), which starred Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Kidman, as Margot, visits Leigh, her sister, in a big house on an island somewhere in the Northeast, and takes her twelve-year-old son, whom she treats, at times, like a disappointing ex-lover. (“You used to be rounder, more graceful.”) The movie, though memorably fraught, is perhaps overfilled with ideas for smart short stories. It can feel like an application for membership in cinema’s first rank. Baumbach acknowledges his debt to Éric Rohmer, a director he loves, and to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Silence,” a film that also starts on a train, and involves two sisters, a boy, and strange things seen from a hotel window. Baumbach explained to Foundas, “I wanted the feeling of when you’re inside, and having a conversation, and the light starts to fade outside, and you don’t turn on the light. That’s what the whole movie looks like.” Earlier, Gerwig, thinking of that light, and of a shot of a child’s shoe dropped on a forest path, and of seemingly lurid goings on in the house next door, had joked, “I thought it was a horror movie.” Baumbach replied, “I thought I was making a comedy.”

The film received several angry, confounded reviews. In Time, Richard Schickel called it “no more than an invitation to wallow in ill-defined neuroses,” adding, “He’s the kind of filmmaker who thinks that if he sets his star to masturbating on camera, he’s making a statement, when all he’s actually doing is signifying the true spirit of the movie.”

Foundas, an admirer of the film, recalled that Steven Soderbergh had recently said to him, “People seem to be willing to accept complexity in behavior in television in a way they don’t in movies.” Foundas went on, “Even in comedies—in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ where Larry David behaves reprehensibly all the time—people are willing to entertain two thoughts at the same time. But movie audiences seem to want a simpler, or more obviously entertaining or spectacular, experience.”

“Do you think it’s because they’re seeing these characters over a longer period of time?” Baumbach asked. Earlier, he had observed that traits one could accept in a novel’s protagonist, or in a complicated friend, often seemed loathsome to modern moviegoers.

“What Margot says to her son upsets people because their mother said that to them, or they’ve thought about saying that to their child,” Foundas said, then laughed. “Whatever it is, there’s clearly a limited appetite for it.”

Before “Frances Ha,” this seemed to be Baumbach’s fate: to pursue a literary career through the medium of film, while ruefully noting that, in the nineteen-seventies, someone who had made work like this might have had a reputation as a mainstream director. “Greenberg” is an explicit attempt to channel the work of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. “With the title, I was thinking of Portnoy or Herzog,” he told me. “I can’t say this well, but I felt I could do cinematically what I loved about those writers and those books.”

Gerwig noted that Roth and Bellow often told a story “relentlessly from one point of view.” In film, though, “when you put a camera on something, you’re here and that’s there.” Instead of inhabiting a man’s psyche, you had to put up with it, across the room. “Greenberg” is a good and funny film, but one wonders if Baumbach has always fully recognized the cinematic challenge of presenting difficult people, even as he meets the literary challenge of acute, merciless portraiture.

“Greenberg” was shot in 2009. Because of Gerwig’s background in improvised movies, Baumbach put her through many auditions. She recalled, “There was a little bit of ‘Do you know what you’re doing? Can you do this in a controlled way, or are you just some weird person who has no shame?’ ” Baumbach came to realize, he said, that “Greta has old studio-system chops. Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, they could be in something totally dramatic, or totally funny; they could sing, they could dance. ‘Frances’ was intended to be a showcase for her to do a lot of this.”

After she was hired for “Greenberg,” they began to discuss her character, Florence, and some of Gerwig’s thoughts were dropped into Baumbach’s script. One was a remark that Florence makes to the man she brings home from a party: “I’ve been out of college now for as long as I was in, and nobody cares if I get up in the morning.” (Gerwig graduated, from Barnard, in 2006.)

They shot in L.A., largely in the house of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother. Leigh played Greenberg’s ex-girlfriend and shared, with Baumbach, the film’s story credit. After that, Baumbach and Gerwig had little contact until the movie’s world première, at the Berlin Film Festival, almost a year later. The film was released in March, 2010, shortly after Leigh and Baumbach—who had been married for five years—had their first child, a son they named Rohmer.

Leigh and Baumbach separated a few months later. If the split was connected to his experience working with Gerwig, this remains hidden: Baumbach and Gerwig firmly place the start of their romance at a point after his separation. Baumbach thinks that aspects of his divorce might eventually appear in his work. There’s already some reflection of it in the animated movie about the mutt, whose story, Baumbach said, contests the thought that “divorced families are flawed families. There are no flawed dogs or flawed families.” Baumbach shares custody of his son. Now three, Rohmer lives primarily with Leigh (and the family dog, Freddy) in L.A., where Baumbach keeps a home; he tries not to be away from his son for more than two weeks at a time. One morning, I met Rohmer in New York, in Baumbach’s bright, never-ending apartment: he was wearing gold battle armor and was knighted by Gerwig after slaying his father, the dragon.

After his separation, Baumbach worked on the scripts for “While We’re Young” and “Madagascar 3.” He also had his first conversations about an adaptation of “The Corrections,” Jonathan Franzen’s novel, for HBO. He would direct; he and Franzen would write it; Rudin would produce it. They eventually mapped out four seasons of ten episodes each, and in 2012 shot a pilot, with a cast that included Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, and Gerwig. HBO passed on the series. Baumbach, and others, declined to show me the pilot. “We were trying to do too much,” he said. “It was too expensive. We were jumping around in time: every episode would go back in time, and you’d see the family at younger ages, but as a result there was everything I try to avoid when making movies: old-age makeup, young-age makeup, different actors playing the same characters at different ages.” A key member of the pilot’s production told me that Baumbach seemed to be “just trying to get through it,” and was disengaged and unavailable: “It was, Boy, we really need more time with Noah.” To get a decision required “pulling teeth.” The pilot was unfinished when it was shown to HBO. Baumbach, who recognizes that he is not a natural showrunner, recalls that, when it was over, “I said to Greta, ‘How could I have miscalculated this?’ She said, ‘You don’t really watch TV.’ ” He laughed. “I was like, ‘You’re right.’ ”

In the summer of 2010, while Baumbach was helping to set this multimillion-dollar enterprise in motion, he had thoughts about a lightweight digital movie, and a connected thought about working again with Gerwig. He asked her if she had any suggestions for a film in which she might act. Gerwig, in her post-“Greenberg” boom, was shooting “No Strings Attached,” with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. “I wrote a list, and then I sat on it because I was scared to send it,” she told me. “It was just ideas, either for a character or scenes or situations, and they weren’t necessarily related.” She finally e-mailed it to him. “He loved it,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I can totally see this in a movie and I can see what kind of movie it is. Let’s keep going.’ ”

On March 3rd, a trailer for “Frances Ha” was posted online. Baumbach and Gerwig were in a hall in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, shooting a pop-concert scene for “Untitled Public School Project”; the night before, he had prepared by watching “The Last Waltz.” Between takes, Baumbach showed me the trailer, which starts with Frances and Sophie larking around New York, to ebullient music borrowed from Truffaut’s New Wave classic “The 400 Blows.” The soundtrack then changes to David Bowie’s “Modern Love”: “I know when to go out / I know when to stay in / Get things done.”

Baumbach and Gerwig were being pressed by the distributors of “Frances Ha” to promote the trailer, but they both lacked Twitter accounts. Baumbach wrote to Stiller, with the subject line “Embarrassing email,” and asked him if he would mind tweeting a link to the trailer to his nearly four million followers. Gerwig texted Lena Dunham, the creator of “Girls,” who is a friend of theirs: nine hundred thousand followers. “She’s so good at it, so plugged in,” Gerwig said. “She’s the Oprah of hipsters.” Both friends coöperated.

Not long afterward, I met Baumbach at Bar Pitti again, and he showed me the earliest “Frances Ha” document that he’d been able to find: a list of first thoughts that he and Gerwig had compiled after she sent her original note. It was written in both the first person and the third person: “I keep thinking about a leather jacket. Not a cool one, just something a friend had given her because she didn’t want it anymore. Maybe it’s too big, and there’s no perfect season to actually wear it.” (Frances does have this jacket.) “She should have moments where she actually appreciates the city, walks through the park because she can, and that kind of stuff. But it’s hailing. I don’t know. I was hailed on once.” 

There were suggestions about running, mid-date, to an A.T.M.; having bruises one can’t account for; a reckless trip to Paris. These are all in the movie. In one striking sentence, Baumbach and Gerwig seemed to set themselves an onerous writing challenge: “Maybe she has some idea of how she thinks the world should work which people make fun of, even she knows is ridiculous, but in the end kind of happens for her.” In slightly different terms, they pulled this off.

There was little here about a best friend, and this absence reinforces one possible reaction to the film: that the story of Sophie is perfunctory, and too evidently has the task of framing the portrait of Frances, and of steering the film away from romantic comedy. (Gerwig’s early idea was to give the film no shape: five disconnected episodes.) The document also has many ideas that never reached the script: “She becomes involved with obese women on a message board online. She claims also to be obese”; “Her dog died while she was away.” Much of what was excluded points to embarrassment and sexual exposure. One sentence reads, “She should be naked and conflicted about it.”

At Bar Pitti, Peter Bogdanovich, the director and actor, joined Baumbach for dinner. They have been close since Bogdanovich played a therapist in “Mr. Jealousy.” Separately, Bogdanovich also became friends with Wes Anderson. “I call them Son Wes and Son Noah, and they call me Pop,” Bogdanovich told me. This summer, Baumbach and Anderson plan to produce “Squirrels to the Nuts,” the first feature that Bogdanovich has directed in more than a decade. Baumbach sees, in this gesture of cross-generational solidarity, a reflection of the support that Bogdanovich gave to Orson Welles in his later career. (Among other things, Bogdanovich published a collection of admiring interviews.) Discussing “Squirrels,” Baumbach and Bogdanovich bonded over the annoyance of dull yet unavoidable shots. “It’s ridiculous!” Baumbach said. “ ‘She glances at them for this one moment,’ and we’ve got to actually do that moment!” They talked about Robert Altman—Baumbach said “totally singular” at the very instant that Bogdanovich said “overrated”—and Baumbach remembered an answering-machine message that Altman had once left him, which his mother later accidentally deleted, “along with a message from my therapist the weekend he died, trying to change our appointment.” He paused. “Little did I know, he was changing it forever.”

Gerwig arrived.

“How did you get more attractive?” Bogdanovich asked.

“Oh, Peter,” Gerwig said. She told him that “Untitled Public School Project” still needed a title.

“Look for song titles—they’re always the best,” Bogdanovich advised.

At Baumbach’s urging, Bogdanovich told a story about once being encouraged by Cary Grant to sneak into a theatre where one of his movies was playing, to relish the laughter. He then told another, about a call from Grant. This was when Bogdanovich was in a long relationship with Cybill Shepherd. “Cybill and I were getting all that bad press,” Bogdanovich said. “Couldn’t open a newspaper or magazine without something nasty. And Cary calls me and says, ‘Peter!’ ”—Bogdanovich had the voice—“ ‘Will you for Christ’s sake stop telling people you’re happy, and stop telling them you’re in love?’ ‘Why, Cary?’ ‘Because they’re not happy, and they’re not in love.’ ‘I thought that all the world loves a lover.’ ‘No. Don’t you believe it.’ ”

One could think of “Frances Ha” as an e-mail courtship that accidentally created a fine movie. At lunch in Berlin, Gerwig looked for a way to describe the experience: “It’s sort of like—this is a ridiculous way to say it—but like a nun in a convent singing over a wall to someone she knows is on the other side. And the person thinking, That song is for me, but not really knowing it’s for them, but then it was for them. And then they meet one day.” She added, “I re-watched ‘The Sound of Music’ recently.”

Though “Frances Ha” has no romantic plot, it is an expression of an emerging love affair. Baumbach said, “I think so. You can say that. If we say it . . .” He put a finger to his mouth and made a quiet vomiting sound.

“Oh, my God,” Gerwig said.

He said, “It always felt important that Frances get a victory and be protected in the movie, and I’m sure on some level it was because I wanted to protect Greta.”

“I also think we have to believe in a happy ending,” Gerwig said. “We have to, otherwise what is anybody doing? I always have this frustration that, in a therapeutic sense, it can feel you have one of two ways of relating to your parents: one is you’re in denial, and the other is you can be really angry at them. And I’m, like, there has to be a way in which you just love them.” She continued, “And I feel that there has to be a story that’s true to its marrow and also filled with joy. There has to be that. Otherwise, it’s utterly depressing.”

She went on, “This is lofty”—a lot of emphasis—“but in one of Hamlet’s soliloquies he says, ‘This brave o’erhanging firmament,’ and he’s talking about the air and the stars and how everything is so alive and so beautiful, and at the end of it he says, ‘It means nothing, it means nothing, and I don’t want to live.’ And I’m, like, ‘How can you see everything and then feel that way?’ I always want to find the reverse of that—to see all the darkness and find the light, as opposed to see all the light and resonate with the nothingness.”

Baumbach imagined the article being prepared: “ ‘At that point, Gerwig launched into a “Hamlet” soliloquy.’ ”

“So bad,” Gerwig said, in mock shame, telling Baumbach, “Or it’s going to show up in the next thing that you write on your own.” That last remark, though joking, pointed to some likely evolution in their work relationship. Gerwig recognizes aspects of herself in the character of the younger woman in “While We’re Young”—including a moment at a dinner party, witnessed by Baumbach, when Gerwig couldn’t stop laughing while telling a story about seeing, as a child, her dog torn apart by Rottweilers. Gerwig has since written her own script, alone. When she showed an early version to Baumbach, he offered to direct it. He also asked if he could help her finish writing it. “He wanted to absorb it,” she said, laughing. She thought for two weeks, and then declined, having decided to direct it herself. I asked if he had been gracious about her choice. “Yes,” she said. “Half-gracious.”

Baumbach described “Frances Ha” as a more even collaboration than past ones, in which he’d either supported someone else’s vision (Anderson) or asked others to support his (Leigh). Gerwig recalled worrying that if she acted in “Frances Ha” people wouldn’t believe that she really co-wrote it; because of the improvisation in her past, “It would be ‘He shot her while she was talking and gave her a credit.’ ” A writing partner who deepens someone’s work even as she lightens it does not want to be mistaken for a director’s muse, like the actresses who inspired Bogdanovich, Woody Allen, or John Cassavetes. When we talked in New York, Gerwig said, “Noah’s a realist and pragmatist, and he sees things without adornment. Which is helpful for someone writing about how people actually are and how they feel. For me, I feel like the adornment sometimes is what is true.” Gerwig occasionally goes to church. “Noah says, ‘You do that because you’re a guilty person.’ ” She laughed. “No, I think I do it because it connects me with a story that I don’t think is true, but I think is somehow resonant. Everything doesn’t have to be true to have power.”

Baumbach started shooting “Frances Ha” in August, 2011, after Gerwig returned from Italy, where she had acted in Allen’s “To Rome with Love.” Baumbach asked himself if he really was making a movie if nobody knew about it. One key location was the Chinatown apartment that Gerwig shared with roommates, furnished with vintage chairs and shelves of vinyl records.

A month or so into the production, Gerwig and Baumbach became a couple. They had tried this a few months earlier, while writing, but they had failed, and Gerwig had started another relationship. She now broke up with her new boyfriend, explaining, “I’m in love with Noah.”

Over Christmas, they flew to Sacramento, where Gerwig’s parents still live. In the film, they play the part of Frances’s parents, and in one scene they see off their daughter at the Sacramento airport. That day, Baumbach was short of time, and there had been little preparation. He needed Gerwig to reach the top of an escalator and look back at her parents, standing below, holding their dog. “I’m thinking, Give that look that will be heartbreaking,” Baumbach told me. “I didn’t say that, but it’s what I’m thinking. And Greta just turns around, and it was the look you see in the movie”—the ache in an ordinary family farewell. “It’s a killer.”

“Thanks, Noah,” Gerwig said, touched. “I was happy with that, too. Whatever that was. That’s how I feel every time I leave.”

After screenings, Gerwig has been happily surprised by the reaction of people who are the age of Frances’s parents. “They say, ‘I thought she would go home and it would be a bad place and they would fight. I’m so happy they were just good parents.’ ”

On their last night in Berlin, Baumbach and Gerwig were sitting on low square stools in the second-floor lobby of a Berlin theatre, eating pretzels. Baumbach wore a dark suit, and Gerwig wore a maroon coat and orange stilettos that required her to hold on to handrails, or Baumbach, when in motion. They had just made a red-carpet entrance at the festival screening, with autographs and photographs, and then taken their seats in an audience of two thousand. When the film began—Frances and Sophie, play-fighting in Tompkins Square Park—they had crept out to the lobby, with Jeremy Barber, their agent.

Fans of “Greenberg” would recognize Barber’s laugh; he is the man who, during Greenberg’s birthday dinner, claps as he laughs, prompting Greenberg to say to Ivan, his old friend, “Laughing already demonstrates appreciation. The applause seems superfluous.”

There was laughter from the theatre. Baumbach recalled standing outside a screening of “Kicking and Screaming,” when a woman came out and asked him to agree that the film was terrible. “I said, ‘It was all right.’ ” He laughed. “I couldn’t go either way—I couldn’t create a character who said, ‘Yes, it was terrible!’ or said, ‘I made it, you bitch!’ I said, ‘Oh, it was O.K.’ ” Barber had been carrying the contents of Baumbach’s pockets, including his house keys and his ChapStick. Baumbach took back the latter and, with the particular happiness with which a self-protective person allows himself to sink beneath the waters of affectionate mockery, listened to Barber and Gerwig riff about his ChapStick tic, which he gave to Roger Greenberg. Gerwig pressed him: “Where do you buy it?”

“You can be aware that something is idiosyncratic, and give it to a character, but keep doing it,” Baumbach eventually said. “And I feel I’m so different from Greenberg in so many ways.” It’s hard to get a good measure of Baumbach’s anxiety levels. “He could have been Greenberg,” Stiller told me. “Noah’s so smart and observant, of it all, that, without the success that he’s had, it would be a pretty painful existence.” Baumbach regrets food orders the moment he has made them. When he starts comparing airlines and flight paths, a look comes over Gerwig’s face. Greenberg is surely quoting Baumbach when he says, “I wish I could be one of those guys who doesn’t care where he dumps his coat at a party.” But this is not exactly self-doubt: Gerwig told me that, not long ago, she made a joke about always falling for nerds. “And Noah said, ‘I am not a nerd.’ And I realized, Oh! You don’t think of yourself as a nerd at all!” Greenberg’s discomfort sits atop a mountain of self-regard and single-mindedness; his worry is not that he is worthless but that the world risks underestimating his worth. Baumbach is not this person, and he has a sense of humor, but he has been directing people since his teens, and has firm passenger-seat opinions about which exit to take off the West Side Highway. At a press conference for “Frances Ha,” he compared the film to “the records Paul McCartney made after the Beatles. He made them in his basement, and they were really big-sounding but also intimate.” This is the grandest possible way to describe modest cultural ambitions. Baumbach could have given the thought to Jeff Daniels for “The Squid and the Whale.”

After Baumbach finished shooting “Frances Ha,” he spent months refining the footage. The richly textured black-and-white images of the finished film are the product of repeated digital manipulation by Pascal Dangin, a retoucher known as the “photo whisperer.” Baumbach began to show the film, which was still unannounced, to friends. Peter Bogdanovich wrote an effusive e-mail that began, “Son of mine, I’m extremely proud of your accomplishment.” Baumbach’s actual father regards “Frances Ha” as Noah’s best film.

Baumbach’s earlier movies are not despairing. They end with things at least no worse than they were at the start, after a period of awkwardness. (“A Noah happy ending,” in Stiller’s words.) Nobody dies, although you worry about the animals, which seem to carry the burden of human mortality. But those films are wary of mollycoddling an audience. “Probably, at some level, I’m not quite letting you laugh, and then getting annoyed when I don’t get the laugh,” Baumbach told me.

When “Frances Ha” was shown at the Telluride Film Festival, last September, it received a standing ovation. For Baumbach, it was “a very nice feeling to have a movie where you can actually experience the reaction,” rather than guess at it. Gerwig said, “We lived the Telluride fantasy, which is that your movie is loved and people stop you in the street.”

In the Berlin lobby, Baumbach and Gerwig heard sudden cheering. They rushed back to retake their seats. As the applause continued over the end credits, and over David Bowie, Gerwig sang along—“Church on time”—and danced a little in her seat, and gave Baumbach a look that said, This could be worse. 

You appear to have been dropped in at the climax of a romcom, when the man enumerates the large, small, and idiosyncratic things he appreciates about the woman, all those reasons he can’t love anybody else. Only here they’re already married, with a son, past the happy-ending goalpost, and both parties offer up their separate lists. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is a brilliant actress, a mother whose tireless playfulness more than compensates for the trail of mess and open cupboard doors left in her wake. Charlie (Adam Driver), the director of their New York theater company, is a self-made man who’s transcended a booze-shadowed childhood, who sews on buttons and loves getting up with his kid in the middle of the night; he even has taste and “never looks embarrassing, which is hard for a man.” The charismatic wattage of both stars, which could have made this stuff feel extra emetic, works the other way: There’s no difficulty imagining each as an irreplaceable love object.

Even though this is (demographically, socioeconomically) a familiar setting for a Noah Baumbach movie, you sense that emotionally, it just can’t be—and you’re right. It’s a trick. The lists of compliments you’re hearing have been written at the behest of a mediator to smooth the way for a more civilized division of assets. The first full scene shows a distraught Nicole refusing to read hers aloud—“I’m not happy with what I wrote”—while her still-smug-in-extremis husband (“I like what I wrote,” he says) ingratiates himself with the mediator, until eventually she storms out, leaving the two men to “suck each other’s dicks” if that’s what they want.

So, like Baumbach’s breakthrough hit, The Squid and the Whale (2005), Marriage Story examines the death throes of a failed relationship. But as their openings suggest—the earlier film starts with a family doubles game in which dad encourages the teenager to target his mother’s weak backhand, then hits the ball at her himself as if he’d love to strike her dead—the great difference here is in tone and, crucially, perspective. Both parents, this time around, are given a viable point of view, and both sometimes try, though painfully, haltingly, to understand the other’s.

This isn’t the first time Baumbach has experimented with showing the experience of different members of a troubled family. Yet, whether neglected in childhood and now chronically unemployed (Adam Sandler), or fussed over and now manically successful (Ben Stiller), the siblings in Baumbach’s last movie, 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), shared roughly the same aggrieved man-child outlook as their aging-sculptor father, played with gusto by Dustin Hoffman. Likewise, the protagonist in While We’re Young (Stiller again), a documentary filmmaker wounded by his lack of success, rants when frauds and hacks outdo him, and confesses to his wife that he feels like a child posing as a grown-up. At root, the question that obsesses these characters is: Why am I not winning? Which is to say, why am I not getting the attention and approval and love I’m entitled to?

In Marriage Story, Nicole has given up a promising movie career to devote herself to Charlie and his work in New York, and he feels betrayed when she, having taken a starring role in a pilot and put their son in school in LA, wants to stay on the West Coast, as he’d always promised they might. He can be selfish and oblivious, using her ideas, soaking up the glory and awards. She went along but now resents it, and though they’ve agreed to do things amicably, she lawyers up, hiring a pit bull attorney delectably played by Laura Dern, and pulls some standard dirty tricks. He cheats; she hacks his email. When she brings up his affair, he complains, though visibly, helplessly aware of how ludicrous and pathetic he sounds, about all those other times in his sexy, successful twenties, when he could have cheated on her but didn’t. She drinks too much; he punches a wall and tells her he wishes she would die.

Yet things don’t stop there. Nicole and Charlie also apologize, defend each other, prioritize the child’s wishes and well-being, keep struggling through toward some livable compromise. They cry not like raging toddlers but like adults—when no one’s looking, while doing their best not to. The result is a sensitive portrayal of how people can justify things they’d sworn never to do, how they can try and fail and then, despite humiliation and disappointment, keep on trying even when, in a conventional sense, it might seem to be too late. Johansson and Driver reward the director’s close attention: You see each, framed, isolated in medium shots, faces contorting in pain or shifting in reflection. 

Remembering their early days, Nicole tells her lawyer that the sex was good in the same way the talking was—“everything is like everything in a relationship”—thus also tacitly acknowledging that what strengthens a marriage is often what later unravels it. Evidently she’d liked Charlie’s decisiveness, had at first wanted to be subsumed in someone else’s project rather than take charge of her own, and it’s no one’s fault that she can’t settle for that anymore. Unlike Squid, it turns out, this movie is not showing you a car crash or its aftermath, but a living thing that’s being maintained against steep odds. The main difference, perhaps, between a supposedly good parent and a poor one—like that between good and shoddy work—is continually renewed, redoubled effort. 

Why does this more humane and hopeful account of arty bicoastal types struggling to co-exist feel like such a leap forward for its writer-director? While Baumbach has always been perceptive and funny, the register of his less successful movies can feel oddly flat, even in those moments when his characters confront one another: rage, cry, throw punches. A bewildered, angry child becomes a bewildered, angry old man, with little in between. A character will tell the embittered artist, in his principled obscurity, that he is the one who’s really fixated on worldly success—as if that hadn’t been obvious to the audience within minutes of his appearance onscreen. The sculptor-father’s rant about the talentless mediocrity of his more lauded friend in The Meyerowitz Stories could have been strutted and fretted by the writer-father character in Squid. Just as the writer steals books from his estranged wife, insisting she’s written her maiden name in them later as a ploy, so the sculptor invites himself over to an ex-wife’s house decades after their divorce and takes home a book he claims was always his. It can be hard to keep your attention on people who aren’t curious about themselves or one another, and who repeat the same tantrums from scene to scene, movie to movie.

What’s new in Marriage Story isn’t that you empathize with Charlie and Nicole, but that you can’t tell what they’ll do or say next—they’re sensitive people responding to one another. What Baumbach gets out of his cast here—even the smaller, broader characters, like Dern’s, or Alan Alda as an insufficiently ruthless LA divorce lawyer Charlie briefly hires—is thrilling. Driver, rather wasted as a generic hipster in previous Baumbachs like While We’re Young and Frances Ha, is a marvel of restraint and its breakages. When he accidentally slices into his arm in front of the social worker observing his parenting, he must hold it together, blood soaking through paper towels, till she leaves and he can collapse on the kitchen floor, assuring the kid that he just needs a rest. The scene’s physical comedy only heightens its subtler, sadder ironies, such as the exhaustion of having to perform under observation what you in fact are; the pained, fallen clown is so palpably the responsible and loving parent that the grimacing phony was straining to impersonate just moments before.

There was a suggestion of this depth in the films Baumbach wrote with Greta Gerwig, especially Mistress America, which allowed the characters more tonal shifts and hairpin turns. Late in Marriage Story, each spouse performs part of a song from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company, Nicole gallivanting through “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” with her mother and sister, Charlie ending a night at a bar with a solo rendition of “Being Alive” that’s no less affecting for its whiff of a man somewhat trapped in his own theatrical self-pity. This move, though, hints at limitations of scope, as if Baumbach is signaling his awareness that the film—with its questions of upscale New York vs. upscale LA, experimental theater vs. Hollywood, the overdetermined his-and-hers pains of heterosexual mating—could almost have been made in 1970, as Company was. The outside world barely impinges on these characters. The closest you get is that early reference to Charlie’s difficult Indiana childhood.

Still, Baumbach has been looking, Austen-like, at the same patch of ground for decades now, and it’s a delight to see it suddenly yield him new accesses of feeling and insight and humor, as if he’s doing a Woody Allen in reverse. Squid has long remained his greatest achievement, rooted as it was in the real and moving struggle of the children. Since then, stuck working through adolescent preoccupations of thwarted ambition, the yearning for parental approval, helpless generational repetition, his catalog has comprised quite a bit of what his disgruntled daddy figures would term “minor work.” Marriage Story isn’t that—in a sense it’s his first truly grown-up movie, which makes it gloriously hard to predict what he might do next.  

Marriage Story opens with the voices of Charlie and Nicole, a couple played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who offer tender remarks about each other. Charlie, an acclaimed New York stage director, recites an ode to his wife, his longtime muse and lead actress in his plays. She’s a talented, generous mother, he explains in voiceover, the sort who can play as a child would with their 8-year-old son. She’s competitive at family game night, can open any jar, and charmingly leaves cups of tea around the house. When it’s her turn, Nicole tells us that Charlie looks good in whatever he wears, eats as though he’s afraid that someone’s going to steal the food from his plate, and always remembers to bring coffee for everyone in his theater company, even the intern. As they recount what they cherish about one another, we see their domestic space come to life in a few brief moments, and we understand why these two fell in love. It seems like the perfect marriage, until we realize the voiceover comes from a written exercise, assigned by a counselor to begin the process of divorce on a positive note. Those glimpses of a warm, loving household in the preceding montage belong to a couple that no longer exists; as we see them now, they can’t even sit next to one another on the subway home. The opening of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s film contains boundless emotional complexity, and the filmmaker sustains that dramatic fullness with wit and detail throughout.
Baumbach lays out the finer points of a divorce over the film’s 136-minute runtime, from the need for and cost of legal representation to how family members, bank accounts, and living arrangements become bargaining chips on both sides. Without taking sides, Baumbach concentrates not on the technical details but on the disturbance the separation marks on his central characters. The material brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) by way of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992), a sensitive portrait of a divorce filled with closely observed characterizations and searing confrontations. Films about the personal troubles of successful white people may seem against the grain of today’s cinema, but Baumbach’s project feels achingly personal, thus more affecting, in the way most of his films seem to have an autobiographical streak. Perhaps Marriage Story reflects his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013 in some way, just as he dramatized watching his parents’ marriage disintegrate from an adolescent perspective in The Squid and the Whale (2005). Speculation aside, Baumbach shows the vulnerabilities, pettiness, anger, and regret of his characters, while also granting them genuine personalities that might seem stagier in the theatrical style of Bergman or the distinct way characters speak in the typical Allen film. 

Given the subject matter, Marriage Story will doubtless be compared to Kramer vs. Kramer, the divorce drama that somehow became a massive hit in 1979 and earned an Oscar for Best Picture. But that film, starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, was based on an anti-feminist book and placed the blame on the wife character, who abandoned her husband and child to self-actualize. Baumbach meets both sides of the argument on their terms, empathizing with each. Still, superficial similarities remain between the two films (even the posters look alike). The split between the New York couple occurs when Nicole, a Los Angeles native, lands a role in a television pilot and resolves to take their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), to the West Coast, where they will live with her mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty). Though Nicole and Charlie have resolved to keep their divorce amicable (“We’re both adults. We can do this without lawyers. We’ll just split everything evenly.”), a colleague recommends that Nicole meet with a famous Hollywood divorce attorney, Nora (Laura Dern), who begins as a shoulder to cry on before switching into a human razor. In their initial consultation, Nicole explains her reasons for initiating the separation, citing how Charlie’s artistic ambitions and tastes always supersede her own. Soon enough, Nora raises the question of infidelity, child custody, and money. What begins as a well-intentioned split between two adults becomes about having an edge in the ensuing negotiation. Marriage Story portrays divorce lawyers as sharks ready to take a bite out of the other party, and in doing so, Baumbach illustrates something broken about our culture’s unwillingness to accept that people sometimes grow out of relationships.  

The film pits the two artists against each other in a myriad of ways, tearing away at their personal and professional exteriors until both parties have been reduced to shouting, teary piles of frustration and emotion. Baumbach alternates between the two characters, allowing the viewer to see their perspectives and increasingly separate motivations. Nicole prefers L.A., but Charlie must remain in New York to oversee the Broadway debut of his latest production. “We’re a New York family,” he insists, though every other member of his family now lives on the West Coast. Nicole has more mainstream sensibilities as a performer. Once famous for removing her top in a teen comedy, Nicole joined Charlie’s experimental theater company and helped establish it, but she’s not above returning to pop-entertainment. The dynamic recalls the one in Annie Hall (1977), in which Diane Keaton’s attraction to L.A. was a point of contention to Woody Allen’s consummate New Yorker. Of course, Henry presents another challenge as Nicole establishes herself on the opposite side of the country, making it impossible for Charlie to convince any L.A. judge that their family belongs in New York. At the same time, Nicole settles into her new home, but Charlie feels displaced by a schedule that requires him to fly across the country every weekend to a city he doesn’t know to see his child. 

Charlie, a self-absorbed creative who fails to recognize his lingering selfishness, continues to wonder why they need lawyers well after Nicole has enlisted Nora. Trying to grasp the situation, he wants to take time to process and resolve the situation with Nicole. “What’s the rush,” he wonders. But Nora moves quickly, threatening full custody of Henry for Nicole unless Charlie finds representation by an appointed deadline. After an aggressive, $950-dollar-an-hour machine (Ray Liotta, in Goodfellas mode) turns him off to the prospect of playing dirty, Charlie hires a wobbly old realist named Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, as only he could play it), the sort of guy who gives his client a hug and means it. Bert tries to explain the ins and outs of his client’s limited choices, but Charlie is an artist who doesn’t understand the legality of his situation. “Are you aware of how maddening you sound?” Charlie asks. Bert replies, “I am.” The cruel and labyrinthine process of divorce remains at the center of the film. Still, Baumbach also acknowledges how its coldness has a way of laying bare the reality of Charlie and Nicole’s marriage. It’s a platform in which both parties recognize how their love and respect for one another also prevented them from communicating the more painful truth—their mutual dissatisfaction and various pain points—that if shared could have resolved their problems. 

Even as Marriage Story takes the viewer through the divorce process, a painful and ugly thing, it’s a film that offers frequent laughter. Baumbach is, after all, versed in darkly comic human stories that cut to the bone. Margot at the Wedding (2007), Greenberg (2010), and Frances Ha (2012) could all be mistaken for either dramas or comedies, whereas While We’re Young (2014) and Mistress America (2015) each have a wealth of physical and screwball humor. Here, Baumbach populates the situation with charming supporting roles, such as Charlie’s cute relationship with his mother-in-law that exists independent of the impending divorce (Hagerty is delightful). Wallace Shawn also appears as an actor in Charlie’s stock company, always with a story to tell about that time that he slept with so-and-so. The highlight must be a ruthlessly comic sequence where a court-appointed observer (Mary Hollis Inboden, hilariously bereft of personality) visits Charlie’s impromptu L.A. apartment to observe his interactions with Henry. The sequence plays like an excruciating cringe-comedy scenario, beginning with Henry’s refusal to cooperate and ending when Charlie inadvertently slices into his forearm in a suicidal gesture intended as a pantomime.  

Still, the primary mode of Marriage Story is an emotional open wound with occasional moments of joy and humor. Nicole’s sudden coldness after initiating their separation might tilt the viewer to Charlie, until his unfaithfulness becomes apparent. Even so, Baumbach views both of them in shades of gray, imperfect and equally worthy of our compassion. Both Nicole and Charlie are subject to bad behavior early in the film, but it becomes worse when they tell their lawyers about it later as ammunition in court. Is Nicole drinking too much? Did Charlie’s infidelity cause the fissure between them? None of the specifics matter in the grand scheme of their divorce, which acts like a glacier moving through the landscape of their relationship. It’s the smaller moments that hurt the most. When Henry admits to his father that he prefers living in L.A. because “my family’s here,” his addition of “besides you” is a monumental pang. Children of divorce will identify with Henry, who seems to be in his own world, despite his parents communicating through him. What’s left is a chasm between the former couple, accentuated by the dirty practices of their legal representation. And even after the parties reach a compromise for an agreed-upon 50/50 split, Nora pushes for a little extra because she doesn’t want to feel like a loser. 

Baumbach’s treatment of character and situation remains carefully observed and thoughtfully considered, and it’s so immersive that his formal technique almost disappears. Gauging his approach by the energy of the moment, cinematographer Robbie Ryan knows when to observe from a distance and when to shove the camera in an actor’s face, heightening the scenes when the couple eviscerates each other in arguments. Though much of Marriage Story makes the viewer feel implanted between Charlie and Nicole, Baumbach also lends the material a few moments of heartbreaking symbolism. In one later scene, Nicole’s power goes out, and she asks Charlie to come over and help close the front gate. With one of them on either side, they push the gate shut in a moment an aching symbolism, deftly edited by Jennifer Lame. Baumbach also inserts several formal flourishes, fades and overlays that suggest how his protagonists have a lasting connection, which is severed by their divorce. Despite such artistic touches, the director’s sometimes cerebral mode of deconstructing family relationships gives way to those pronounced scenes in his work when his characters break down or lose themselves in a moment of happiness. It’s as though Baumbach, in telling this story, complements how both Charlie and Nicole would have made it.  

Two of today’s most famous movie stars have set aside their franchise costumes—Johansson as MCU hero Black Widow and Driver as moody Star Wars villain Kylo Ren—and given themselves over to the emotional heights of melodrama. Both actors give what might be career-best performances, and each has their talents displayed in their very own extended take, a frequent device in Marriage Story: Johannson is brilliant as she walks Nora through a shorthand version of their marriage and her growing resentment over her needs continually being supplanted by Charlie’s artistic ambitions. It’s a scene among many in the film that reminds us how rarely Johannson is recognized for her talents. Later, Driver gives an impromptu performance of “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, a moment that gradually builds with vulnerable expression, crescendoing until it leaves the viewer ruined. Together, Johannson and Driver share a scene involving such a vitriolic argument—shot in an unpainted and unfurnished room to accentuate the unselfconscious performances, and how both parties must finally own up to their basest, most ruptured feelings—that it left me physically shaken. Enough cannot be said of these performances, unquestionably two of the best, period. 

Marriage Story has much more on its mind than other films about divorce, which elevates it beyond the limits of its well-treaded subject matter and into a realm of extraordinary filmmaking. It’s less a confessional than an inspection of an open wound, and a mourning of the once unmarred flesh that came before. Baumbach resists pinpointing what went wrong between Charlie and Nicole to make their differences so irreconcilable; it’s too complicated to reduce the failure of their marriage to just Nicole’s need to become her own woman or Charlie’s brief affair. Baumbach’s sympathies lie with the marriage itself, even if the final scene portrays Charlie as a ghost in his former family and Nicole content in her new life. Regardless, Nicole and Charlie’s love for one another, even after the cruelest outbursts, remains palpable. The tragedy is that they realize that the proceedings have taken them to places they wished they had never gone and perhaps could have avoided. It’s a film with such a range of emotion that it is, frankly, exhausting just how much we feel. Marriage Story makes you experience the full weight of marriage. Yet Baumbach never resorts to sentimentalism; he sees the situation from a place of hard-earned perspective, and he offers raw feelings handled by an artist in complete control of his skill as a filmmaker and storyteller. 

Films Reviewed

Kicking and Screaming           1995

The Squid and the Whale       2005

Margot at the Wedding          2007

Greenberg                               2010

Frances Ha                              2012

While We're Young                2014

The Meyerwitz Stories (New and Selected)               2017

Marriage Story                        2019

No comments:

Post a Comment