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WHILE WE'RE YOUNG - FEATURETTE REALISATEUR - Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried| © Mars Fiilms/youtube
WHILE WE'RE YOUNG - FEATURETTE REALISATEUR - Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried| © Mars Fiilms/youtube

The Bittersweet Cinema Of Brooklyn’s Noah Baumbach

Picture of Malcolm Morano
Updated: 10 January 2017
It’s understandable to dislike the characters in Noah Baumbach’s films — they tend to be unselfish, ungrateful, and rude. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll find that these qualities are just the outward manifestations of intense inner struggles. And once seen in this light, Baumbach’s characters can display great humanity.

Noah Baumbach is a writer and director from Brooklyn. He was born to a household of writers in 1969, and this comes across in his literary and psychologically acute films. After attending Vassar College, he wrote and directed the Gen-X buddy comedy, Kicking and Screaming (1995), which has since become a cult-classic.

In 2005, he returned with a sardonic family drama, The Squid and the Whale, which netted him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. He has been making films steadily ever since.

At the heart of every Baumbach film lies a failure. It might be a failure of family, as in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, of career, as in Greenberg and While We’re Young, or of a relationship, as in Kicking and Screaming and Frances Ha. But this failure invariably infects the films’ protagonists. Whether it makes them bitter and resentful, or delusional and self-absorbed, it always turns them sour.

Producer Scott Rudin once told The New Yorker that Baumbach is ‘tremendously good at turning psychology into behavior,’ and this observation is spot on. His psychologically flawed characters are equally tactless. Margot (Nicole Kidman) of Margot at the Wedding viciously projects her flaws onto her son, and Greenberg (Ben Stiller) of Greenberg repeatedly ignores the needs of those around him.

These impertinent acts are what make these characters so initially unappealing — too painful to laugh at and too distasteful to identify with. But once we grow to understand their deep psychologies, we begin to develop a similarly deep sympathy for them. We start to see these characters not merely as bad people, but as people in a bad way.

Baumbach films play out like a torturous series of character trials — trials which his protagonists repeatedly fail. Scenes meander on, not moved by some internal force of plot, but by the unfurling of a character’s psyche. It comes as no surprise, then, that the New York director has called his films a byproduct of therapy; watching them is much like going through that very process. And like any great session, Baumbach films always end with a revelation. Two pivotal end-of-film symbols serve to spur his characters to a state of psychological self-awareness and, eventually, a newfound appreciation for what they already have in life.

First there is ‘the trip,’ which represents the characters’ desire to overcome their failures by escaping them. Sometimes it is explicitly a trip, as when Greenberg suddenly decides to fly to Australia with his niece. But often it is a different kind of escape. In Squid, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) fashions his flight by living with his father full-time. In While We’re Young, Josh (Ben Stiller) avoids accepting his failure to become an important artist by befriending a young documentarian (Adam Driver) who looks up to him. Still, whether it involves an airplane, a duffel bag, or just a delusional sense of self-worth, the trip always proves to be a red herring. Baumbach characters’ problems are internal; their solutions must be equally so.

The point of the trip is to serve as a foil, to crystallize the characters’ real issues: the value they place on worldly success, and their attachment to the person they wish they had become. This clarity leads them to abandon their vanity — the feelings of failure that have kept them from accepting their lives as they are and appreciating the final symbol, ‘the connection.’

The connection which these characters discover in the end is always something they already had. For Squid’s Walt, it is a childhood memory of his mother’s kindness; for Margot, her love for her son; for Greenberg, the compassion he feels for Florence (Greta Gerwig). Despite all of their flaws, despite their exhibited capacity for cruelty, every Baumbach character has someone who has shown them enormous sympathy, someone who has seen through their hardened exterior and loved them. And it is through their realizing this — through Walt’s mother shielding him from a frightful scene, through Margot chasing after the bus to reach her son, through Greenberg caring for Florence — that his characters see what is truly important in life.

Perhaps Baumbach’s films are seen as unforgiving because people are not compelled by these final moments. If Baumbach’s subtle attempts to show the underlying humanity of his flawed characters do not convince the viewer, it is understandable that the entire film will seem pointless. But when these moments hit home, when his magical sleight-of-hand enkindles our compassion, they are everything a Baumbach film should be — relentlessly bittersweet, intimate, and profound.