Noah Baumbach: Flawed Fathers and Wry Witticisms

Noah Baumbach: Flawed Fathers and Wry Witticisms

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Noah Baumbach has a knack for depicting people in various stages of crisis and dismay, people growing increasingly apart and distant from one another, or people who are just stuck in one hell of a rut. Born in Brooklyn and fitting neatly into the niche of filmmakers who set almost all of their projects within New York, Baumbach has, through an impressive filmography that includes Frances Ha, The Meyerowitz Stories, Mistress America and the upcoming Marriage Story, established himself as a master of the contemporary character study, crafting complex, intriguing characters, superbly witty screenplays, and ensuring that his version of New York City is one you’ll want to return to time and time again.

The story of Baumbach’s directing career begins, after a couple of middling attempts at small-scale features, with his 2004 breakout hit The Squid and the Whale. The film follows the divorce of Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) as viewed through the eyes of their sons 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline). Bernard is an arrogant figure who passes judgment on everything with a pithy sneer (he dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dickens” and This Side of Paradise as “minor Fitzgerald”) and he is idolised by Walt, who follows his father’s cultural rulings like scripture. 

As the film progresses we see Bernard’s superiority complex grow worse as his facade of power and authority crumbles. We see his work being turned away by publishers and the development of his relationship with young college student Lili (Anna Paquin), who is barely older than Bernard’s sons. In tandem to these events, we see Walt falling down a similar path, as he breaks up with his girlfriend on Bernard’s advice, falls behind at school, and passes off Pink Floyd’s Hey You as his own original song at the school talent show (when confronted about it, he claims “I felt I could’ve written it… so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality”). 

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The dynamics at play between Bernard and Walt are intriguing to watch and Baumbach is masterful in revealing how their close relationship affects Joan and Frank, who both appear to grow increasingly distant and removed from father and son (Joan begins a relationship with their tennis coach and Frank begins drinking beer and vandalizing the school in bizarre ways). A common through theme in all of Baumbach’s work is his penchant for razor sharp dialogue and it is no clearer than here, with family arguments, emotional breakdowns, and awkward high-school flirting all delivered in powerfully vivid and naturalistic fashion.

But despite the themes of separation and disintegration that form the crux of the story (the poster tagline: “Joint custody blows”), there is a genuine warmth and humourous streak that also runs throughout. It is no surprise then to find out that Wes Anderson was a producer on the film and that he and Baumbach have worked together a number of times since (Baumbach co-writing The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr Fox), Anderson’s films glowing with a similar ingenuity and wry wit, often hammered home through his characters’ dry and brutally honest dialogue. And as we have touched upon, dialogue is also the central piece of what gives Baumbach’s films a fine balance of grounded realism and quaint whimsy (and his writing work on The Squid and the Whale would go on to earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay).

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This skill of Baumbach’s in writing highly effective screenplays can be to some degree attributed to the director’s personal experiences that form, to varying extents, the foundation for much of his work thus far. The much-documented basis for The Squid and the Whale was Baumbach’s own childhood, when his parents separated, due in no small part to his father’s deeply flawed and damagingly self-centered personality. It is subsequently no secret that Bernard is based on Baumbach’s father, with the director even going so far as to dress Jeff Daniels’ character in his father’s old clothes.

And such were the personal memories that Baumbach was exploring through the making of the film that he has spoken of feeling a kind of “transference” with Daniels’ character, a testament to just how much of his real childhood was conveyed within the film. It feels like a deeply personal piece right from the off too, with the use of handheld cameras establishing a feeling of almost home-video intimacy, as if we are somehow peering into Baumbach’s troubled childhood, but never feeling that we are intruding. 

So if we see film as a method of catharsis, a way of expressing and exploring past experiences, then Baumbach is surely the figurehead for this school of thought (as the director once told The Times, “the more I do this, the more I kind of see how what I do is a kind of conversation with my childhood”).

His most recent release, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), was a clear continuation of this dialogue between film and reality, with Dustin Hoffman’s Harold being a flawed and unreliable father witnessing, or rather turning a blind eye, to the constant fighting of his two supposedly grown up sons Danny (Adam Sandler [yes that’s right, Adam Sandler. Back in a good film for the first time in about 15 years. If you take nothing else away from this piece, appreciate that Baumbach drew out a fantastic performance from one of comedy’s biggest drop-offs) and Matthew (Baumbach alumni Ben Stiller, excellent in Greenberg and While We’re Young). 

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By turns drily cynical and disarmingly funny, The Meyerowitz Stories again shines with the best of Baumbach’s qualities in both the writing and directing departments, delivering a script packed with acidic retorts and subtly emotional moments, and camera work that is equally as adept at drawing us into a room full of squabbling siblings or a car filled with tension as Howard desperately searches for a parking space in the crowded streets of New York (a moment that harks back to a similar scene in The Squid and the Whale).

And speaking of the Big Apple, it is no surprise at all to learn that a key influence for Baumbach was the king of New York comedy himself Woody Allen, Manhattan being an important film for the director during his time at college and leading Baumbach to express a natural affinity for Allen’s view on the world. Both directors (though leading vastly different personal lives *cough* *cough*) evoke through their work a grounded portrayal of life and relationships that is viewed through a filter of youthful energy and subtle romanticism.

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Of course, it would be completely amiss of me to not include Greta Gerwig in this article. It is hard to overstate just how influential the actor-cum-director has been on Baumbach’s work since starring in 2010’s Greenberg as embattled au pair Florence. But it was her starring role in Frances Ha two years later that truly kickstarted the Gerwig/Baumbach dream team, the New York set dramedy being a beautiful and quietly moving portrait of an extraordinary woman who is always one step out of sync with everyone else. If I did have to draw up a ranked list of Baumbach’s films (oh hey, I did!), I would place this one at the very top for its seemingly effortless ability to charm and transport us into Frances’ world on every single rewatch (a regular ritual for me). 

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Of course the sheer brilliance of their work together again brings us back to the many diverging threads that connect film and reality in the Baumbach canon. After working together on Greenberg, Baumbach separated from Jennifer Jason Leigh and began an initially hush-hush relationship with Gerwig (this New Yorker interview is essential reading on this subject). 

They have since worked together on two more films (Frances Ha and Mistress America) and were recently signed on to write Warner Bros’ Barbie film starring Margot Robbie (so fingers crossed for plenty of shots of scenes of Barbie dancing in crowded New York bars and arguing with her tetchy, neurotic boyfriend Ken), and they have shown no signs of easing up. It is undeniable that Gerwig and Baumbach were, from a creative viewpoint, destined for each other, with Frances Ha and Mistress America delivering two of the most vital and life-affirming depictions of life from a female perspective in the 21st century (as Baumbach once said regarding Frances Ha, “in making this, I was led by Greta… I wanted the movie to be as buoyant as she is”). 

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And this idea of Gerwig being the driving force behind both films is clear to anyone who has seen them, Gerwig’s characters dominating the proceedings every time she is on screen. Whether playing the free-spirited but down-spiralling Frances or the coolly confident but financially struggling Brooke in Mistress America, Gerwig is wholeheartedly believable in her performances and, through her and Baumbach’s co-written screenplays, delivers weaponized insults and reckless rants with scintillating energy.

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In this article I didn’t even get to touch upon another of my favourites from Baumbach, While We’re Young, but it is safe to say that the New York based director has become an endlessly intriguing and uniquely poised voice in contemporary film with his razor-sharp scripts, intimate directing style and semi-autobiographical character studies.

His new project Marriage Story premieres at the New York Film Festival later this year and promises another enthralling and quietly erupting exploration of relationships, this time starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. And as Baumbach recently told IndieWire, this promises to be another deeply personal project for him, yet another example of the director’s powerfully effective semi-autobiographical approach to his work. Fingers crossed for a UK release date soon!

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