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Noah Baumbach: Visibly Human

By Scott Foundas

It would be tempting to hail Noah Baumbach as the filmmaking voice of his generation—were Baumbach himself not so likely to scoff at the idea. Or as the protagonist of his second feature, Mr. Jealousy (1997), remarks of a similarly anointed literary wunderkind: “All this New York Times he’s-the- voice-of-his-generation crap, it’s ridiculous!” So let’s leave it at this: if you were born roughly between the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1980s, to parents who prized intellect over emotion and candor over unconditional love, and if you “came of age” without ever quite feeling like you’d actually grown up, Baumbach’s painfully funny portraits of arrested development—at age 14 or 40—are sure to strike a chord.

This was already evident in Baumbach’s debut feature, Kicking and Screaming (1995), made when its director was all of 25 (the same age, incidentally, as Orson Welles when he did Citizen Kane) and released with little fanfare by a company that specialized in direct-to-video action and horror movies. Baumbach’s film wasn’t Citizen Kane, but its portrait of several recent college grads waylaid by indecision was a kind of horror movie—the horror of young overachievers terrified that they won’t manage to write the great American novel or otherwise leave their indelible marks upon the world. And like many a Baumbach film to come, Kicking builds to a scene of the main character poised to press the reset button on his own life—in this case, by impulsively hopping on a plane to join his ex-girlfriend in Prague. Except when Grover (Josh Hamilton) gets to the airport, he discovers he doesn’t have his passport—which is, existentially speaking, where nearly all of Baumbach’s on-screen alter egos find themselves at some point in their respective journeys.

What are they all running away from? Baumbach’s 2005 breakthrough film, The Squid and the Whale, offers more than a few clues. A tough, wry, beautifully observed account of two brothers stumbling through adolescence while their parents’ marriage crumbles around them, the film was rooted in the real-life divorce of Baumbach’s parents—film critic Georgia Brown and fiction writer Jonathan Baumbach—when Noah was 14. Baumbach even went so far as to dress the movie’s paterfamilias, Jeff Daniels, in items borrowed from his real father’s wardrobe. It was his third feature (or fourth, if you count Highball, an improvised 1997 experiment on which Baumbach took a pseudonym), but was, in his own words, his first “real” movie—the one in which he seemed to find his true voice as a cinematic storyteller, the way Saul Bellow remarked of his third novel, The Adventures of Augie March: “The great pleasure of the book was that it came easily. All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it.” The result won Baumbach directing and screenwriting awards at that year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well as an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination (shared with his younger brother, Nico), and it marked the flowering of a fruitful creative partnership with Wes Anderson, who produced Squid and enlisted Baumbach as his writing partner on The Life Aquatic (2004) and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).

After Squid, Baumbach easily might have leveraged his buzz to direct a studio feature, but instead he chose to plunge us into yet another crucible of intellectual one-upmanship and questionable parenting. The movie, Margot at the Wedding (2007), stars Nicole Kidman as another classically Baumbachian striver—a writer with a habit of mining her own family’s lives a little too closely for inspiration—and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach’s wife at the time) as the dowdy sister whose wedding Kidman’s Margot is attending with her gangly teenage son. It is a coarse, mercilessly funny, brilliantly acted film about the myriad ways in which we hurt the ones we love—and it proved altogether too much for some audiences to take. But then, you don’t really go to a Noah Baumbach movie for “likeable” characters, even if Baumbach is hardly the misanthrope some have claimed, always punctuating cruelty with tenderness, always taking pains to make sure his characters remain visibly human. As Jean Renoir said and Baumbach continues to show us, everyone has his (or her) reasons.

Then, with Leigh again, he made Greenberg (2010), starring Ben Stiller as the titular New Yorker temporarily marooned in Los Angeles, a non-swimmer in the land of swimming pools, a short-tempered pedestrian in the city of the freeway. Here was an unusually perceptive movie about the “city of angels”—all the more remarkable coming from a native New Yorker— shot in a lyrically hazy, diffuse light by the late cinematographer Harris Savides (who also shot Margot). It was also the beginning of another important Baumbach partnership—this time with the young actress-writer Greta Gerwig, best known as a constant presence in the upstart wave of no-budget American indie films collectively branded as “mumblecore.” In Greenberg, Gerwig plays Florence, a part-time personal assistant to Greenberg’s brother and, like Greenberg himself, a fragile person desperately looking to connect, for someone to let her in (in life and in bumperto- bumper traffic). It was Gerwig’s richest, most demanding role to date, and she more than rose to the occasion, imbuing Florence with the luminous tenderness of so many aspirant somebodies toiling in the lower reaches of the Hollywood dream factory.

And now there is Frances Ha, in which Gerwig (who also cowrote the screenplay) is front and center the entire time, and in which she is an even greater revelation. Moreover, her Frances—an aspiring dancer trying to navigate the fast pace and high cost of New York living—may be the most hopeful, ebullient character Baumbach has ever put on screen. When she stumbles, you want to catch her. Shot in luminous black and white, far outside the normal industrial channels (no one, not even the exhaustive IMDB, knew Baumbach was even making it until it was announced for screenings at several fall 2012 festivals), it is a film of total freedom, yet another new beginning, a departure to points unknown.

Noah Baumbach, on the set of Margot at the Wedding, 2007

Courtesy Paramount Vantage

Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale, 2005

Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films

Noah Baumbach, Margot at the Wedding, 2007

Courtesy Paramount Vantage

Noah Baumbach, Greenberg, 2010

Courtesy Focus Features

Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha, 2012

Courtesy IFC Films