The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s magnificent 2005 film, opens with a family tennis match. It’s a piece of hilarious tragi-comedy in which the lines of the battle to follow are clearly drawn. The hypocrisy of the father Bernard (Jeff Bridges) is slowly revealed to his son Walt played by a young Jesse Eisenberg; trauma and truth seep in by osmosis, just like real life.
What is so striking about Squid and its follow-up Margot at the Wedding (2007) is Baumbach’s ability to drive the action through close observation of his characters, however warped and insecure. Like a cinematic Chekhov, everyone is protagonist and antagonist; it’s absurd but also illuminating and moving.
More recently Frances Ha (2012) written with Greta Gerwig, was an inspired examination of female friendship. I think the influence of Gerwig was huge on Frances… and I can’t wait for their latest collaboration, Mistress America to drop. But though still displaying elements of brilliance, his most recent solo projects – Greenberg (2010) and this year’s While We’re Young – feel strangely hollow by comparison.
The basic premise of WWY is promising: two documentary filmmakers – one Generation X; one Millennial – battle it out for success and space. The film wonders when it’s time to accept you’re no longer young, and what you lose or gain by such an admission.
Über-hip young couple Jamie (a superb Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) listen to songs fortysomething pair Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) would’ve mocked as kids; their analogue life is set up in contrast to Josh and Cornelia’s attachment to their iPhones; Jamie is manipulative, phony but unsentimental, while Josh lies to himself, refusing to face the truth about his half-baked career. His eventual denouement of the younger man’s practice is a howl of irritation from someone who just doesn’t get it anymore.
The observations are well crafted, but mostly they don’t take you deeper. Though I did get hysterical over Peter Yarrow’s turn as the dusty academic featuring in Josh’s never-ending vanity project. It’s one of the film’s most telling moments when Jamie gets a great interview for his piece, the old crustacean seeming suddenly relevant and astute. Filmmaking is about providing the mis en scene, the framework for meaning to emerge. Jamie’s doing it; Josh can’t any longer, if he ever could. But such moments are lost in the distinctly unBaumbach-like gloss. And the story culminates in an uncharacteristically neat/trite ending that makes you wonder what’s going on.
For me, Baumbach’s biggest mistake is Ben Stiller. I find him consistently one-dimensional. Compare him to Jeff Bridges in Squid… I don’t think there is any comparison; they’re not in the same room. Of course there was wish-fulfillment to Squid: a teenage boy seeing through his father so soon – if only. But Greenberg, the first Stiller-Baumbach collaboration, is a kind of middle-aged fantasy. Ultimately Greenberg, an unrelentingly charmless character, doesn’t get slit open; instead he gets the girl (the relationship between Gerwig and Stiller’s characters is annoyingly unbelievable). In some odd way it’s like Baumbach is subtly canvassing for the unappealing and selfish characters he used to pull apart. It’s a weird transition.
And where his characters’ psychic pain used to drive the action, it now feels as if he is superimposing ideas onto them, leaving them squirming uncomfortably in slightly unbelievable worlds. Of course there is much that is brilliant about the two films – they’re Baumbach films – but it feels like, of all things, he’s running a little scared of the layers of hypocrisy and self-delusion he used to peel back with such glee (and love).