Near the end of writer-directorNoah Baumbach’s debut feature, Kicking and Screaming, there’s a scene in which Grover (Josh Hamilton), a terminally indecisive, recently graduated English major in an unspecified East Coast college town, bounds up to an airline ticket counter and demands to be put on the next flight to Prague, where his ex-girlfriend, Jane (Olivia D’Abo), is studying for a year. “I have to go,” he pleads. “I know that when I review this whole episode in my head, I’m not going to know what I did or why I did it. But it’ll make a good story of my young adult life: the time I chose to go to Prague.” It’s a setup for one of those grandly romantic airport finales you’ve seen in a thousand movies, save for one sticky detail. Grover realizes he doesn’t have his passport — people in grandly romantic airport finales aren’t supposed to need passports, are they? — to which the ticket agent sympathetically replies, “You can always go tomorrow.” Would that it were so easy.
Baumbach was 25 years old when he wrote and directed that scene, looking back on his college years from the wide end of the telescope. When I saw the movie in the fall of 1995, I was still a student at USC, for whom the world of post-collegiate responsibility seemed like a distant galaxy. Yet, in spite of that gap, as I watched Grover’s destiny play out on the screen, Baumbach’s film felt truthful and lived-in to me in a way that the raft of other so-called Generation X movies — with their masturbatory, we’re-doomed-to-be-less-successful-than-our-parents musings — didn’t. Unlike them, it had something meaningful to say about what it was to be young and unmoored at the tail end of the 20th century. And I took comfort in Grover’s conviction that one solitary, impulsive gesture might alter the entire course of a life. Writing about the film in the pages of our campus newspaper, I (somewhat grandly) pronounced, “You don’t have to be ‘twentysomething’ in order to understand [the movie’s] sense of confused hesitation. We all constantly reconcile our wistful longings with the harsh realities of life... as we are brought, kicking and screaming, into the real world — whatever that may be.” Pulling that yellowed volume down from a bookshelf as I began to write this article, I noticed that the review was printed directly opposite an advertisement for, of all things, the study-abroad program at the American University of Paris.
In the years since, as Baumbach continued to make films and I continued to write about them, I watched the progression of his career with interest, no matter how rare the opportunities. Baumbach’s second feature, Mr. Jealousy (1997), was a modestly diverting romantic comedy, very much under the sign of Woody Allen, about a neurotic New York schoolteacher (Eric Stoltz) so paranoid about his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriends that he ends up joining the group-therapy session of a renowned psychiatrist (a preSopranosPeter Bogdanovich) just to spy on one of them. Then, with most of the same cast and crew — many of them already holdovers from Kicking — Baumbach embarked on Highball, an improvisational romp shot over six days immediately following the wrap of Mr. Jealousy. The movie was never properly finished; Baumbach had a falling out with the producer and, by the time Highballemerged on video, he’d replaced his name with a pseudonym. After that, nothing. Not a peep from Baumbach for the better part of the next decade.
“The honest answer is that I really wanted to make a movie very badly,” Baumbach says in retrospect. “I did a book adaptation. I wrote a pilot that got shot but didn’t get picked up. There were a lot of possibilities. But when I look back on it now, in a way it was good that none of those things happened, because I think they all kind of got me here.”
“Here” is The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach’s wry, beautifully observed account of two brothers coming of age as their parents’ marriage crumbles around them. Premiering in the dramatic competition of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it won awards for best screenplay and best director, signaling a welcome end to its creator’s long artistic drought and prompting Baumbach to remark that he felt like he’d finally made his first “real” movie. When I ask Baumbach to elaborate on that, he says, “It’s one of those things that’s true — it’s an honest answer — yet in some ways, I don’t know what it means. But I stick with it because it’s an honest answer. I think it’s just a representation of who I am now versus who I was when I was 25 or 28.”
On a sunny Friday afternoon in late September, Baumbach and I are walking down Broadway, just after the official New York Film Festival press screening of The Squid and the Whale. It’s the start of a busy few days for the filmmaker that will include two appearances at the concurrent New Yorkerfestival — on Saturday, an onstage interview about the film, and on Sunday, a reading of one of Baumbach’s contributions to the magazine’s “Shouts & Murmurs” section, about a dog who thinks he’s Tom Cruise. Baumbach says he’s been practicing his adrenalized bark at home with his longtime girlfriend — and, as of Labor Day, wife — actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Then, on Monday night, Squidwill have its gala NYFF screening before a crowd that includes lots of old friends — and Baumbach’s parents, author Jonathan Baumbach (The Return of Service, Babble) and former Village Voicefilm critic Georgia Brown. Their divorce, when Noah was 14, served as a starting point for the script. But while he shot his third authorized feature on the very streets where he grew up, and even dressed star Jeff Daniels in items borrowed from his father’s wardrobe, Baumbach is quick to downplay the idea that the film is an exact historical record of his youth. “When I talk about this being in some ways my most personal movie, I’m really thinking less of the subject matter than the aesthetic — the way it’s written, the way it’s shot, the way it’s acted, the way it’s art-directed, everything,” he says as we sit down for lunch at a nearby restaurant. “I feel like it represents me — the whole thing is me in a way — and I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, that’s my father, my mother, me, my brother.’ I’m not looking at it that way. Obviously, writing about material that was close to me was part of it, but at the same time I felt like I’d written the best script that I’d ever written, I’d raised the bar for myself, and now I had to make this movie. I got a little scared. I didn’t want to fuck it up.”
The Squid and the Whaledoesn’t look or feel like any movie Baumbach has made before — the rhythms are looser, the textures are rougher, the emotions are rawer — but it’s of a piece with his earlier work in its uncommon sensitivity to the ways in which people try to make relationships work, often for worse rather than better. Set in Brooklyn in the mid-1980s, the film canvasses several months in the lives of the Berkman family — novelist Bernard (Daniels), aspiring writer Joan (Laura Linney) and their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) — beginning with a decidedly unfriendly game of family tennis and culminating in an achingly soulful moment (set to the sawing string arrangements of Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle”) when 16-year-old Walt comes to put away childhood fears, and notions of his parents as perfect people. In between, Squid performs an autopsy on that failed social experiment known as joint custody, and peers deeply into those grievous wounds unwittingly inflicted on children by parents who think from their heads before their hearts. The result may be the most acutely honest onscreen bust-up of an American family since Alan Parker’s sadly forgotten Shoot the Moon (1982) — and I speak as one whose own parents’ marriage was imploding in just these same years. Before the film’s ultra-compact 80 minutes are up, all of the Berkmans will behave both heroically and reprehensibly. There will be no forced moments of redemption or reconciliation. And then, at the height of our emotional involvement, Baumbach will cut us loose entirely.
“I want to leave things a mystery,” Baumbach says. “The hope is that all these characters continue living in some way. You know, I was watching a movie the other day, and at the end, I was so aware that it was the last shot in the movie, and I was like, ‘What a bummer!’ I like not to know. I like to be left surprised.”
That affection for open endings made The Squid and the Whalea difficult movie to get off the ground, as did Baumbach’s steadfast refusal to pass judgment on his characters, and his uncommonly candid depiction of burgeoning adolescent sexuality in all its comic, awkward and embarrassing permutations.
“I had financiers say, ‘We’re interested in this, but we don’t like the masturbation scene.’ I had them ask, ‘Where’s Bernard’s redemption?’ But now when people see the movie, if they respond to it, they respond to it 10 times more because of those things. They feel they’re true. If Bernard had made some sudden shift at the end, which I never considered, what an amazing cheat that would have been! And what would have been the point, except to make things more like a movie? But I do have affection for all of the characters, Bernard included. A friend of mine who I showed an early version of the movie to said that it felt like a love letter to a bunch of people who aren’t always so lovable, and I liked that. I thought, ‘Good.’”
Fortunately, Baumbach found an adventurous producer in the form of Rushmore director Wes Anderson, who befriended Baumbach shortly after moving to New York from Texas and eventually sought him out as a collaborator on the screenplay for last year’s The Life Aquatic. “Wes was really helpful to me in that way of constantly pushing me to make it better,” Baumbach says. “It helped that he knew me and he could say, ‘What about that story you once told me?’ I think it was fun for him in much the same way The Life Aquatic was fun for me, to be involved in the kind of movie you really like to see but wouldn’t necessarily make yourself.”
In one of The Squid and the Whale’s most memorable scenes,Walt performs Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” in a high-school talent competition, claiming it as original work — and nearly gets away with it. (“You’ll win, and if you don’t win, there’s something wrong with them, which is probably the case,” comments Bernard approvingly after a living-room run-through.) It’s a painfully funny moment that’s a literal expression of something — plagiarism — that has long been a pressing concern for Baumbach, whose characters are forever copying others’ behaviors, slipping into assumed identities or, at the very least, desperately trying to be something other than themselves. It’s there in Grover’s urge to take that flight to Prague, believing not only that he might patch things up with his ex, but perchance become a whole new person in the process; in Mr. Jealousy’s pompous bad-boy writer Dashiell Frank, who dreams of Hemingway-esque rabble-rousing and smokes the same brand of cigarettes as Beckett; in Highball’s competitive co-workers who can’t stop dressing alike; and in The Squid and the Whale’s Bernard, who measures his own worth as a writer by what other famous writers think of his work.
“When you put it like that, I think that it’s true,” Baumbach says. “I’m thinking about Chris Eigeman’s character in Kicking and Screaming talking about reminiscing things before they’ve happened. There’s this sort of hyper self-consciousness that can be crippling. And if I were to take this to the meta-meta level, I would say that Mr. Jealousy, as a movie, is me imitating the kind of movie I think I should be making rather than making the movie that’s really true to me. I mean, I like things in that movie — I don’t want to condemn it. But even if I made Kicking and Screaming today, I mean it in a good way when I say that I don’t think I would make it the same way. What’s nice about that movie is that it has all the first-movie stuff both in its favor and against it, and in a way I would never want to change that.”
So Noah Baumbach is 35 now. He is married. And he has gone from movies about Gen-X anomie to one that depicts a midlife crisis. Does that mean, I ask him, that he’s officially all grown up?
“No,” he replies. “But I feel like a filmmaker. I’m excited about making movies in a way that I haven’t been. I feel more present, which is nice. It’s not true of every part of my life.”
By the way, I say as we part, did Grover ever make it to Europe?