Criterion Sunday 349: Kicking and Screaming (1995)

There was a story recently in the New York Times that sparked off a lot of online discourse about the Criterion Collection, specifically about its blind spot for African-American filmmakers, and the next morning I found myself watching Noah Baumbach’s debut film, which seems to exemplify something of the collection’s fixation on white American filmmakers. To stick with the discourse for just a moment, I think the sensible response is not to valorise the Criterion Collection as the ultimate arbiter of tastemaking, but for whatever reason it has de facto become that — and as someone who is literally invested in the collection (as my watching of their films has also been accompanied by acquisition of the physical media), I can only hope that they do diversify their titles, while acknowledging that other labels have much better records on historically interesting releases by Black filmmakers (Milestone and Kino Lorber being two examples of distributors some of whose titles I own). Just looking at 90s indie films, there have been plenty of titles by Black directors that are easily the equal of this one, for example Love Jones, or indeed much of the output of that film’s stars during the decade (several of them were in Dead Presidents, which even had a Criterion laserdisc release, I believe).

I was younger than the characters are when I first saw Kicking and Screaming, and revisiting it again now in the light of everything I’ve seen since, 25 years after its first release, it has become aggravating to me. The actors are all fine; instead the weakness seems to be the script, which attempts a sort of witty insouciance that it just doesn’t perhaps have the experience to achieve (Baumbach would go on to make films which I’ve liked very much, so it’s not that I don’t like his work). The presence of Chris Eigeman only underlines this, given his role in Metropolitan five years earlier (and not very far back in the Criterion Collection), which did this stuff a lot better and with more genuine wit and humour. Of course, perhaps part of the problem is that “this stuff” as I’m calling it is the spiritual succession to Woody Allen and his neurotic stories of WASPy New York types — but that’s not even a genre that is necessarily bad, just quite well covered already. Certainly these mopey graduates trying to make their way in the world feels as limited as their social spheres. I do remember much of my post-film discussion in 1996 or so was about the flashback structure (because all these filmmaking tricks were still new to me then), and Olivia d’Abo’s character Jane is probably the most interesting of everyone, so it’s a pity she gets short shrift to the tedious Grover (Josh Hamilton). Let’s just say there were a lot of things that Baumbach would go on to refine in subsequent decades, but this still very much feels like juvenilia.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Noah Baumbach; Writers Baumbach and Oliver Berkman; Cinematographer Steven Bernstein; Starring Josh Hamilton, Chris Eigeman, Olivia d’Abo, Parker Posey, Eric Stoltz; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, early-1996 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Friday 21 August 2020).

Marriage Story (2019)

This new Noah Baumbach film has just been released on Netflix, so currently everyone seems to have an opinion about it. Why not let me add mine to the mix, for what very little it is worth at this point.

Despite being primed to dislike this film that appears to be about wealthy white people falling out of love — not to mention some kind of pointed self-fiction dealing with the director and his first marriage — I did really like this film, which in some of its textures and characters reminds me of last year’s Private Life (another Netflix film, albeit one that didn’t even get any cinema screenings over here sadly). This is about Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who have been married ten years but find themselves drawn apart, as much because they want different things than anything they particularly dislike about the other person — though of course those all come out. It’s a film that’s dealing with divorce as an idea, working through all those feelings but working them out in public on film. I was expecting more of a character assassination of the wife, but she comes across to me as pretty reasonable, whereas it’s Driver’s character who can be the real ass most of the time. There are laughs and there’s tension, but most of all there’s really excellent acting that supports this central couple (my confession is I’ve never been a huge fan of either Driver or Johansson), most notably Alan Alda and Laura Dern as the competing divorce lawyers, though it’s nice to see Julie Hagerty on screen again.

Marriage Story film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 23 November 2019.

While We’re Young (2014)

Another story of the New York middle classes from its latter-day poet laureate Noah Baumbach, and however insufferable one might expect it to be, While We’re Young actually treads a rather fine and well-judged line for much of its running time. The overall impression by the end is of it being more a drama than a comedy thanks to its extensive disquisition on ethics in documentary filmmaking, but in getting there it does a good deal of wryly amusing legwork as established filmmaker Ben Stiller finds himself being usurped by young pretender Adam Driver. It’s at its strongest in observing the generational differences between Stiller and his wife Naomi Watts, and Driver and his wife Amanda Seyfried, as the older couple find themselves inspired and energised by their youthful counterparts (I suppose one would call them hipsters). Unlike some of the film’s reviewers, I don’t find them particularly ridiculous, but it’s in the nature of Stiller’s characters to overanalyse such things to the point of ridiculousness, and at that he remains a master. Still, I do prefer Baumbach’s looser collaborations with Greta Gerwig (most recently, Mistress America).

While We're Young film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 21 December 2015.

Mistress America (2015)

Screwball comedy seems to be back in with US cinema at the moment, perhaps an expression of yearning for a long-gone era when filmmakers got to just indulge their borderline-sociopathic characters with witty wordplay, showing little regard for the naturalism that seemed so important to the New American Cinema of the 60s onwards. It allows for a rush of pure cinephilia, but unlike Peter Bogdanovich’s recent She’s Funny That Way, Noah Baumbach’s film, co-written by his star Greta Gerwig, has a more contemporary feel. It’s still based around suffocating WASPy upper-middles making their idle way through life, a milieu familiar from Frances Ha (or the sitcom Girls, featuring co-star Lola Kirke’s sister), but it mines that for some excellent laughs. Much of this is at the expense of Kirke’s first-year college student Tracy and her pretentious literary fellows (she’s a budding writer), but the source is Gerwig’s irrepressible Brooke, just turned 30 and still living precariously in New York City. Brooke has big plans but a history of others taking them on to achieve the success she can only fantasise about, and Tracy steps into this role as a potential sister-in-law (thanks to their parents’ impending marriage). One imagines the film could collapse at any moment — plenty of the relationships within it do — but it all manages to nimbly keep afloat and keep the laughs coming, even when some of the emotional terrain becomes more fraught. Gerwig’s Brooke is a complex character, at once warm and good to be around but also with a streak of mean self-absorption, nothing near as excoriating as the literary poseurs of Listen Up Philip (another film sharing some of the same terrain), but certainly challenging to those around her. Baumbach’s style though seems to be lightening up a little, making for more enjoyable films, and this one is equally driven by its musical soundtrack, heavy on the 80s synth sounds of such bands as Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark — and that at least is enough to keep me happy.

Mistress America film poster CREDITS
Director Noah Baumbach; Writers Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 17 August 2015.

Frances Ha (2012)

I started keeping a spreadsheet (well, a notebook originally) of films I’d been to see around the time I started going to university. My best friend of the time would take me along to interesting-sounding movies, and among the films of that first year was Noah Baumbach’s debut Kicking and Screaming (1995), about which I don’t remember much except that it dealt with aimless university graduates and had a tricksy narrative structure. I imagine if I’d been a few years older I’d have identified with the characters more, after a few years studying film and reading the classics, and certainly I had some aimless years in my 20s (I’m not convinced I’ve really progressed far from there, actually, save perhaps for a more stable living situation). It’s the same middle-class world of New York-based artists and intellectuals that Baumbach has mined in those of his films I’ve seen since then, and if it’s the kind of milieu that I chiefly associate with movies (whether his or Whit Stillman’s, Wes Anderson’s, Woody Allen’s or the recent ‘mumblecore’ movement), then it’s certainly a comfortable milieu. Yet it can sometimes feel suffocatingly airless, preying on generational narcissism; I saw characteristics in this past year’s Stuck in Love and it’s evident here too. And yet, I am sucker for this kind of thing and Frances Ha does it with exceptional charm.

Part of this charm is the way it shamelessly draws on its influences, while being sure to carefully credit them. It very clearly wants to be a Nouvelle Vague film — François Truffaut’s iconic actor Jean-Pierre Léaud is namechecked and Georges Delerue music from his films is used, while the protagonist even visits Paris at one point — and at its best it could stand alongside those early-60s films of Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer with its watchful camera and short spontaneous scenes. The black-and-white photography recalls Raoul Coutard in those years, or perhaps more apropos, the Gordon Willis who shot Woody Allen’s high period films, particularly the monochrome Manhattan (1979). It just imparts to everything a kind of timelessness: Frances Ha is set in the present, but in its music and visual cues it constantly harks to the past.

The resulting tension is reflective of the stasis in which its eponymous central character — well, almost eponymous, as her surname is longer than “Ha” — finds herself. I’ve seen it described as a ‘coming of age story’ and perhaps that’s right, or at least suggests something of the heroine’s struggle, and yet she’s 27 years old: she’s out of university, unsuccessfully pursuing a career as a dancer, unable (or unwilling) to sustain a relationship and unsure what to do. There’s a heartbreaking stretch of the film where everything just seems to go wrong for her, not in a melodramatic way, but just that way that things go sometimes (missed connections, misunderstandings, social embarrassments). But the film isn’t thankfully out to be misanthropic or to wallow in misery: Frances may have difficulty achieving her vaunted ambitions, but she is a stubborn character.

I’ve talked already about some of the ways the film is charming, but chief among them is its star (and co-writer) Greta Gerwig, an heir to Allen’s neurotic heroines of the 1970s without the WASPy excesses. She manages to pull off the kind of ‘free-spirited’ role that’s too often a lazy (male) screenwriter’s idea of femininity (Manic Pixie Dream Girls, anyone?), without sacrificing her right to be taken seriously as a character. There’s plenty of resulting comedy too, such as a wonderful scene where she is breaking up with her boyfriend but is able to animatedly take a phone call from her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Frances frequently, in fact, punctures a sombre gathering with her cheerful (and at times tactless) humour.

What it all adds up to is unclear: it’s mostly a persuasive portrait of one type of late-20s ennui, loosely organised by the different addresses in which Frances lives, thereby charting her move towards increasing security. Part of what I like about it is identifying with what I want to imagine my own 20s were like, but there’s also plenty that I think is valuable and wonderful and even heartwarming.

Frances Ha film posterCREDITS
Director Noah Baumbach; Writers Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 10 August 2013.