Cruel & Tender: An Appreciation of Noah Baumbach

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l to r: director Noah Baumbach, scene from Frances Ha
If you believe what you read, then all of American filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s sharp, witty, poignant, and sometimes devastating works are drawn directly from his life. Baumbach debuted in 1995 with his acclaimed but largely underseen cult classic Kicking and Screaming; a stingingly funny, truthful study of post-college malaise. The breakthrough film became a highlight of the post-Slacker American independent film scene as it captured a specific time and place of Generation X, as well as a fleeting sense of hipness.

Baumbach’s sophomore effort, Mr. Jealousy (1997), was a brutally incisive portrait about the uncomfortable emotions that emerge with real adulthood. Cast in the form of a nostalgic art movie like Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, it recounts the obsession of a thirty-something Manhattanite substitute teacher and aspiring writer whose neurotic jealousy ruins his romantic relationships.

Nobody saw much of Baumbach for several years afterwards, until his career was re-energized by his collaboration with Wes Anderson: he brought Baumbach on board to co-write The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), and then produced his triumphant The Squid and the Whale (2005).  Inspired by the heartaching, bitter divorce of his parents when he was a teenager, The Squid and the Whale is a cruel and tender comedy sporting Baumbach’s trademark witty dialogue and some lacerating observations about how a complacently eccentric family can implode. The film’s raw, stripped down style yanked the camera off the tripod and aimed the lens at the wounds beneath the script’s cute wit. This comedy of humiliation earned Baumbach an Academy Award nomination.

l to r: Nicole Kidman in Margot and the Wedding, scene from The Squid and the Whale

Baumbach’s follow up was Margot at the Wedding (2007), an honest and at times emotionally wrenching story about two sisters (played by Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh), a would-be wedding, and an ill-fated tree.  To one extent or another, up through Margot, all of Baumbach’s films can be seen as attempting to trace the troubled family histories and failed relationships of adult intellectuals and their children. Adults behave like adolescents in Baumbach’s films while children behave like adults, usually even speaking as if they were their parents’ therapists.

In early 2010, Baumbach premiered Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and, in a casting choice that sent minor shockwaves through the blogosphere: “mumblecore” muse, Greta Gerwig. The film marked a geographic leap to the West Coast for Baumbach, long associated with New York stories, as it followed Ben Stiller’s titular character to the City of Angels, where he hoped to figure out his life after suffering a nervous breakdown. The sharply acidic film showed an evocative vision of Los Angeles as a city where the self-deluded slowly age into bland irrelevance. 

Anyone who saw Gerwig’s unaffected rumpled radiance in Greenberg would understand why Baumbach would want to cast her again in his current film, Frances Ha. Teaming-up with Gerwig on the script, Baumbach has produced in Frances Ha one of his most accessible and joyous films, and seems to have begun an exciting new period in his career.  — Igor Shteyrenberg

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Jaie Laplante

Jaie Laplante is the Miami Film Festival's executive director and director of programming. Learn more about Jaie on Programmers.