If for whatever reason you are ever asked to address a group of college students, I’ve found that few things hit home with as much depth or laughter as the first ten minutes of Noah Baumbach’s overstuffed yet incredibly charming debut film, Kicking and Screaming. Some of the trappings might have dated a little, but the humor holds up, as does, more importantly, the content. The opening depicts a bunch of college seniors moping around a table at their graduation party, lamenting the loss of their identity and contemplating the uncertainty of their future(s). Who am I now that I’m not an English major? Who am I now that I’m not Jane’s boyfriend? Who am I now that I’m living in Cleveland and not upstate New York? How many films can I name where monkeys play a starring role? These are the questions that keep kids with too much time on their hands up at night, the ones that occasionally even bring them to church (among other places), and Baumbach’s portrait is affectionate enough to allow for some compassion and cynical enough to double as pretty biting satire.

When I first saw Kicking and Screaming, I felt like I’d uncovered a lost Whit Stillman film, albeit one made by a much younger man. This was not just because it featured the wonderful Chris Eigeman–and Noah gave him lines worthy of an equally-sharp-but-less-principled Nick Smith–though that certainly helped. The constant barrage of witticisms, the way the characters mask their insecurities with irony, the centrality of good music (Freedy Johnston’s “Bad Reputation”, which plays over the credits, remains a favorite), the episodic nature of the plot, the non-Hollywoodness of the whole thing; all of this was water in the desert for a Stillman fan. And yet as clearly and expertly as Noah paid tribute, some of the hallmarks of the Baumbach style which would later emerge were present, too. Kicking and Screaming may not be as raw or misanthropic as some of his later films (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg), but those undercurrents are there. His producer, Scott Rudin, was recently quoted as saying that Baumbach is “tremendously good at turning psychology into behavior,” and you see that in Kicking and Screaming. Characters who, for all their learning, are fairly paralyzed when it comes to growing up. They must be dragged, well, you know. It also happens to be one of the funniest films of the past 25 years. But I digress.

Baumbach and actress/girlfriend Greta Gerwig were profiled by Ian Parker in the recent issue of The New Yorker in anticipation of the release of their collaboration Frances Ha (May 17), and a number of things stuck out, in particular how the Baumbach who made Kicking and Screaming turned into the Baumbach that made The Squid and the Whale. It turns out Noah experienced a creative and personal breakthrough after seeing 1. a good therapist and 2. Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. A pretty dynamite recipe if you ask me:

margot6“At the Frances age [mid-twenties], 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… 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 reexamined his teen-age years without his usual self-protective equanimity…

Many consider the resulting film, The Squid and the Whale, to be a flawless piece of work, and I would probably include myself in that number. It’s not for everyone, mind you. While still an extremely funny script, gone for the most part are the mannered Stillmanisms. The over-educated preppies/yuppies of K&S and Mr. Jealousy have been traded for the over-educated bohemian literati of his youth, and it’s all the better for it. Baumbach had found his own voice, in other words, something more taut and fraught, the relationships more uncomfortable and the acting-out more explicit than anything in his earlier work (you’ve been warned: one scene in particular could have been left on the cutting room floor). Where Kicking and Screaming played the confusion of its bumbling post-grads for laughs, thereby basically forgiving it, The Squid and the Whale is an unflinching portrait of a family at its worst, and thus fairly ambivalent about its subject matter, namely, what happens when otherwise smart people, especially parents, act in reprehensible ways. It riffs on identity just as powerfully as its predecessor, but the stakes are a little higher, the barbs more pointed, the morality less neutral–indeed, borderline heartless were it not for the surprisingly kind/wise guidance counselor and overtly baptismal ending.

Margot at the Wedding, the follow-up, eliminates the compassion almost entirely (or at least reserves it exclusively for the amazing Jack Black character) and replaces it with passive aggressive WASP misery, upping the crudeness without celebrating it one iota. Hard to watch, in other words, and understandably a bit hostile for some viewers, especially the final third, which devolves into something of an emotional freakshow. As much as the dialogue crackles (again, Jack Black has all the best lines), Margot at the Wedding feels less like an acerbic study of a fundamentally-unlikeable-but-still-human character than a case of the writer-director simply being in a bad mood/place when he made it. It’s still a pretty good film–Nicole Kidman’s performance as the title character is quite something–but the reception was considerably less warm than that of The Squid and The Whale, and you can understand why. Parker extrapolates on its fate by making some interesting observations about the differences between television and film when it comes to portraying difficult characters:

[Margot at the Wedding] received several angry, confounded reviews. In Time, Richard Schickel called it “no more than an invitation to wallow in ill-defined  neuroses,” adding, “[Baumbach]’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.”

Wes-Anderson-Noah-Baumbach[Village Voice film critic Scott] 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.”…

I suppose Ken Lonergan’s supremely excoriating (and supremely little seen/difficult to watch) Margaret would certainly support that statement, to say nothing of the popularity of Breaking Bad. Ultimately, though, the real gems of the profile come from Greta herself. After the strangely limp Greenberg–maybe I just need to watch it again–it sounds like Noah, with some help from his new muse, has done the unexpected and made a legitimately upbeat film in Frances Ha. The response thus far has been glorious, and I for one could not be more excited, especially if even a fraction of the sensibility expressed below made it into the final cut. The first part of Greta’s remarks could be taken almost straight from the opening of GiA, and that last paragraph, while obviously not entirely sympathetic, stopped me in my tracks:

26baumbach-dietrich-blog480“…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.”…

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.”