Koslofsky’s Corner: yikes, I’m in love with Noah Baumbach

January 24, 2020

There’s something masochistic about turning on a Noah Baumbach movie. If you’re unfamiliar, this is the writer/director who broke into the mainstream with “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), an excruciating, autobiographical riff on his parents’ divorce. More than any other filmmaker working today, Baumbach makes no illusions about his characters, people he’s willing to present honestly, even if they alienate an audience. Baumbach’s latest, “Marriage Story,” arrived on Netflix about a month ago to critical acclaim, as well as earning six Oscar nominations (a rare case in which I agree with the Academy.) But that doesn’t make watching it any easier.

Baumbach first appeared on my radar two years ago, when his film “The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected” was released around the same time as his partner’s debut, Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” At the time, I sort of wrote Baumbach off—or maybe I wasn’t ready for his work. But in the last few weeks, I’ve gone through his entire relevant filmography, starting with “The Squid and the Whale.” It’s a harrowing film, one in which Baumbach casts himself as an annoying, teenage Jesse Eisenberg, his irredeemable father played by Jeff Bridges.

Released ten years after his debut, “Kicking and Screaming,” “The Squid and the Whale” runs only 81 minutes—not that you’d be able to stand in front of its harsh fumes for much longer. Although it’s a pretty exceptional film—its honesty brutal, its humor unexpected and generally effective—Baumbach’s follow-up floundered: “Margot at the Wedding” (2006) has got to be the director’s worst outing. Still, it’s the type of failure that can illustrate an artist’s strengths: again, we watch a dysfunctional family’s self destruction, but the characters are so unlikable, and the film’s notions on human nature are so coarse, rigid and bitter that you can’t really engage with it. That’s what’s so illuminating about a movie like “Margot”—all the elements that make Baumbach’s work successful are there, just disproportionately pieced together.  

And Baumbach couldn’t have found his groove—which he did eventually locate—without the help of one special person. After co-starring in Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” (2010), Greta Gerwig and Baumbach co-wrote “Frances Ha” (2013), she leading in front of the camera, him leading behind it. Still, watching “Greenberg” today is a bit painful, though not for the intended reasons. Gerwig and Baumbach began a relationship somewhere between their first two films, a messy development considering Baumbach was still married to Jennifer Jason Leigh – who also co-starred in “Greenberg” (all of this admittedly juicy material is riffed on in “Marriage Story”). Perhaps it should come as no surprise that someone who makes movies about deeply flawed people fell down a similar rabbit hole.  

Off-screen drama aside, “Ha” marks another high-point in Baumbach’s filmography. The story of Frances, a dancer stuck in post-college uncertainty, is not quite as agonizing as a lot of the director’s other movies. Yes, I still cringed a-plenty, but the black-and-white frames are gorgeous, and Gerwig keeps the protagonist sympathetic. Also sporting a runtime of under 90 minutes, “Frances Ha” is an easy recommendation.

From here, Baumbach churned out two more low-key flicks, “While We’re Young” (2014) and “Mistress America” (2015), both of which I find genuinely enjoyable. The former marks his first collaboration with Adam Driver in a neurotic explication of aging, while the latter is another “Frances Ha”-style collaboration between Baumbach and Gerwig that never quite reaches the heights of their prior work. The stakes never feel particularly high in either, but they’re both entertaining, functional works. 

Then, two full years before his much-publicized dramatic turn in “Uncut Gems,” Baumbach cast Adam Sandler as the lead in “The Meyerowitz Stories” (2017). Sandler turns in a sweet performance, as the film circles back to a family much like the one Baumbach picked apart in “The Squid and the Whale.” Only this time, the irredeemable father (now played by Dustin Hoffman) may be deserving of some sympathy, his health in serious question. And while the titular Meyerowitzes have more than their fair share of issues–including a stunning inability to communicate–Baumbach takes care to make all their perspectives valuable and valid. 

Then there’s “Marriage Story,” which might just be my favorite of anything Baumbach has made so far. It’s got the most empathy for its characters, harshly poking at their flaws and simultaneously making you care for their suffering. There’s a scene in this movie I can’t stop thinking about, can’t stop watching. It falls at the very end: Adam Driver’s Charlie belts out an impromptu version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” “Somebody hold me too close / Somebody hurt me too deep” he sings, “make me confused!” he begs. His voice builds. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an actor embody total vulnerability like this before. 

Baumbach’s movies can be hard to watch, sometimes seriously brutal. But this is what I find so fascinating about his approach: that’s it. Baumbach’s movies don’t usually have a hook, or a big, broad conceit. They’re about screwed-up people navigating a screwed-up world, nothing more, and nothing less. Yes, his characters sometimes speak in a deadpan tone, but generally, this is a filmmaker who rejects showboating gimmicks. In an age of over-the-top genre-flicks and high concept intellectual property, there’s something radical about Baumbach’s simplicity. 

Maybe I’m a masochist. Or maybe the key is in that Songheim song: people, even at their most frustrating, are worth being around. The key to Baumbach’s style was never to pull back and make his characters more palatable, but to present the contradiction of people as both horrible and valuable. As Baumbach has embraced this truth, his work has evolved, becoming more empathetic—not to mention better.

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