Lessons on romance from the director of Greenberg and
The Squid and the Whale.
I should probably hate Noah Baumbach. After all, the Brooklyn-born, Vassar-educated son of a novelist and a Village Voice critic wrote and directed his first independent feature at twenty-six, married a movie star (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and gets to make artsy personal films with fellow scions of upper-middle-class intelligentsia like Wes Anderson and second-generation show-biz aristocrats like Ben Stiller (and, well, Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Yet, for all the privilege of his upbringing, Baumbach’s movies are surprisingly relatable to overeducated neurotics from all walks of life. And while the auteur’s effete, hyper-articulate strain of navel-gazing may not be everyone’s cup of fair-trade chai, his films consistently offer a far more realistic portrayal of real-world relationships than cynical Hollywood swill like your average Gerard Butler "romantic" "comedy." With Baumbach’s latest cautionary tale (Greenberg) expanding into wider release this Friday, your pals here at Nerve decided to see what insights into love we might glean from the director’s bittersweet oeuvre.
1. Never violate the "bro code" — unless it’s with Parker Posey.
After serving as the muse for Whit Stillman’s "urban haute bourgeoisie" trilogy (Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco), underrated national treasure Chris Eigeman appeared in kindred spirit Baumbach’s 1995 directorial debut Kicking and Screaming as a mordant trust-fund brat in a post-collegiate funk. Disgusted by his own inertia, he sleeps with a buddy’s "soulmate" (Posey) out of sheer boredom, thereby activating a time bomb of recrimination which eventually explodes his crumbling support network. In defense of Eigeman’s character, however, it should be noted that Posey is completely irresistible in one of the few roles to capitalize on her early (and frequently squandered) potential, while the guy they wind up betraying (Jason Wiles’ "Skippy") is the kind of feckless bozo who can only be driven away through strategic violations of the aforementioned "code."
2. Beware the green-eyed monster.
After 1997’s mysterious Highball (unavailable on DVD and directed, unpromisingly, under an assumed name), Baumbach reteamed with Eigeman (and fellow Kicking alumni Carlos Jacott and Eric Stoltz) for the 1998 romantic comedy Mr. Jealousy. In that film, Stoltz (as an aspiring writer) charms a vivacious Annabella Sciorra with his gingery good looks, soft-spoken intelligence, and spot-on Muppet walk (don’t ask), but then totally screws up the relationship thanks to his obsessive, out-of-control… well, heck, it’s right there in the title of the film. Eventually, all the false accusations of infidelity drive Sciorra back into the arms of former boyfriend Eigeman, after which she confronts Stoltz with the withering kiss-off, "Well, that’s what you wanted, right?" Because, as Peter Bogdanovich’s therapist character might say: obsessive fears about losing love will usually metastasize into self-fulfilling prophecies.
3. Love requires patience.
Infatuation can set the stage for disappointment, when the objects of our fascination inevitably let us down — a lesson I had to painfully re-learn when Baumbach and Wes Anderson (auteur of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and the transcendent Royal Tenenbaums) teamed up with freakin’ Bill Murray for what should have been the best film of 2004, but instead wound up as The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a turgid, unfocused botch about father issues, oceanography, and the limited appeal of Bowie songs in Portuguese. My disappointment was intense, but my faith in Baumbach and Anderson’s collaborative mojo was eventually rewarded with their whimsical 2009 children’s film, Fantastic Mr. Fox — a reminder that all relationships (including those between fans and filmmakers) have ups and downs, and the best ones are definitely worth the ride.
4. Don’t romanticize your parents.
In 2005, Baumbach hit the big time with The Squid & The Whale. The film not only earned near-unanimous critical praise and an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, but also somehow managed to make Billy Baldwin lovable (as a goofy tennis pro with an endearing verbal tic, my bruthah). In Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale, Jesse Eisenberg plays a precocious Brooklyn teen who turns against his mother (Laura Linney) in the aftermath of his parents’ acrimonious divorce, aping the pompous, breathtakingly selfish behavior of his failed novelist father (Jeff Daniels in a career-best performance that somehow failed to snag an Oscar nomination of its own). After hearing himself pontificate about the "Kafkaesque" nature of The Metamorphosis (by, y’know, Kafka), Eisenberg’s character eventually gains some insight into the true nature of his parents’ relationship when his reverse-Oedipal pathology leads him to sabotage a promising love affair of his own… thus potentially saving him from years of intensive therapy.
5. To love another, you must love yourself.
Baumbach followed his 2005 study of clueless male arrogance with a 2007 study of female passive-aggressiveness, Margot at the Wedding. In a performance that puts the "mother" into "smother," Nicole Kidman’s self-deluded Manhattan busybody hauls her neurotic tween son (Zane Pais) into the hinterlands of Long Island to undermine the impending nuptials between her gloomy, ne’er-do-well sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Pauline’s schlubby but warm-hearted fiancée, Malcolm (Jack Black, who — to lend some perspective — actually comes across as the most normal and well-adjusted character in the story). Throughout the film, Kidman’s Margot does her damndest to torpedo the titular wedding, telling herself (and anyone else who will listen) that Malcolm simply isn’t good enough for her sister, when in reality, her relentless criticism is merely a cracked-mirror reflection of her own limitless self-loathing.