I’m entirely sincere when I note it’s pleasing that so many media outlets reported on the surprise arrival of the first child of a movie biz power couple by neglecting the papa. In a culture that still routinely refers to an incredibly accomplished human rights lawyer and activity as as “George Clooney’s wife,” it’s heartening to see Greta Gerwig given top billing and her partner shunted off to the side of the spotlight. It’s okay, Noah Baumbach. We know you make movies, too. This was written for my former online home, upon the covered film’s initial release.
It’s been ten years since his debut Kicking and Screaming, so it’s a little jarring to realize how few films writer-director Noah Baumbach has had his name on since then. Until he replaced Owen Wilson as Wes Anderson’s duly appointed writing partner (beginning with last year’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), Baumbach hadn’t been heard from since 1997’s widely unloved Mr. Jealousy.
Baumbach clearly prospers when he traffics in the highly personal. Kicking and Screaming felt like a brutally honest (and quite funny) self-portrait, capturing that time right after college when the sudden absence of a school-dictated game plan leaves one lost and wandering, unable to face a future that, for the first time, needs to be created rather than met. Anything is fodder to forestall the decision-making and forward progress, even, in a favorite moment from the film, a laundry detergent commercial.
His fine new film, The Squid and the Whale, takes place in 1986. Jesse Eisenberg (from Roger Dodger) plays Walt, our Noah Baumbach stand-in. Walt and his younger brother Frank struggle to endure their parents’ messy divorce, complete with power-play custody arrangements, poorly thought out décor in new second bedrooms, and awkward rebound romances. There is a lot of humor here, but Baumbach doesn’t shy away from raw emotions, either. These characters make rash decisions and lash out forcefully at one another. The laughter tempers it, but there’s some real pain onscreen.
The broken marriage at the center of film is perhaps explained in an observation delivered by the mother of the family, played by Laura Linney. Pressed to explain why she’d married in the first place, she reminisces about discovering this intellectual man when they both lived in Ohio. She gets a distant, appreciative look in her eye as she talked about how different he was. It’s easier to stand out as a bohemian in Columbus than in New York City, where college students and high school administrators sing the praises of New Yorker articles. Sometimes it’s not people that change, but the contexts in which they live. Of course, there’s ample cause for disillusionment in the relationship, regardless of mailing address. To that end, Jeff Daniels plays the father with a fearless command of the man’s poisonous self-regard.
The film itself is a fast 80 minutes. Some scenes come and go so quickly that it sometimes feels like glancing at a film rather than watching it. This can give the film a satisfying feeling of memories captured and conveyed, but on occasion it just makes the whole endeavor feel a little disjointed. After all those years between films, Baumbach clearly has a lot to say. When the movie moves by so quickly, it can feel like he’s not giving himself quite enough time in which to say it.