Walker Art Center pays homage to darkly funny auteur Noah Baumbach with a Regis Retrospective and Dialogue

Come on…be romantically self-destructive with me.

This quote comes from Kicking and Screaming, Academy-Award-nominated writer/director Noah Baumbach’s 1995 debut feature about a group of college students facing life after graduation, dealing with ongoing and hazardous relationships, finding a purpose in the real world, and facing personal crises. This quote could also represent four other Baumbach films screening at the Walker Art Center, as part of the Regis Dialogue and Retrospective Noah Baumbach: Visibly Human. The retrospective kicks off with Kicking and Screaming, on Friday, March 15 and runs through Friday, April 5 with Baumbach and Village Voice chief film critic Scott Foundas, discussing Baumbach’s 18-year career as a screenwriter and director.

Baumbach’s films featured in the Walker retrospective, four of them screening on 35mm (a rarity these days), seemingly have been about “self-destructive” relationships, whether they are among college students (Kicking and Screaming), parents divorcing (The Squid and the Whale), a pending marriage (Margot at the Wedding), and starting a new romance after a mid-life crisis (Greenberg). Baumbach’s characters and dialogue dance around relationships, while at other times, the subjects and plot seem to suggest making relationships pivotal.

Take the mid-90’s Gen-X slacker film, Kicking and Screaming. While the four main male characters chose different paths after graduation, they all crave attention, are looking to fit in and are slowly being swept away by their own decisions, even if none of them really want to move forward.  Grover (Josh Hamilton) has broken up with Jane (Olivia d’Abo) as she has gone to study abroad, Otis (Carlos Jacott) can’t seem to do anything right, and Skippy (Jason Wiles) is thinking about sticking around school longer to be with his girlfriend Miami (Parker Posey), until he finds out that Max (Chris Eigerman) has been with Miami, as Max seems to have adopted a new sleazy lifestyle. Baumbach gives each character his or her proper arc, especially in a comic supporting turn from Eric Stoltz as the lifetime “student” bartending at the townie bar and giving advice and anecdotes on life with everyone, leaving each character wandering and contemplating their impending doom. In the end, it is Grover’s story we mostly connect with and we wonder whether he is happy in the end; that's a question that may haunt him and the viewer forever.

Next came the impressive and downright spiteful 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale (Saturday March 16). Baumbach nails the tone of the film, setting the film in the mid-80s as we see arrogant has-been author, now teacher, Bernard (a fantastic Jeff Daniels) dealing with his pending divorce from Joan (Laura Linney) and the repercussions it has for their two sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). Baumbach’s script is razor-sharp—it landed him an Academy Award nomination—and his direction is spot-on, delving into the harsh aftermath of separated parents and how children react when their family has been divided. Daniels, sporting a gigantic salt-and-pepper beard, makes Bernard so unpleasant you can understand why Joan has left him. His rash parenting skills are often hilarious and wrong: he lets his children curse and come along with Walt and his girlfriend on a movie date to see Blue Velvet instead of Short Circuit. (“I’ve heard it's supposed to be interesting,” he says.) He also invites a younger female student, played by Anna Paquin, to live with them. With his children acting out in different and foul ways, Joan plays the moral compass in the film trying to establish stability, but we finally understand in the finale, why Walt has been so jaded most of his life.

Margot at the Wedding (Wednesday, March 20) should have been a happy affair involving successful author Margot (a terrific Nicole Kidman) attending the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to unemployed artist Malcolm (a reserved Jack Black). Margot disapproves from the get-go, opening family wounds and self-pity. The two sisters have not had the best relationship, and once Margot and her son Claude arrive in upstate New York to attend the wedding, the claws come out. This is often a depressing and gloomy wedding to attend, leaving a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

Trading the setting of his usual New York region for the sunnier skies of Los Angeles, Bachbaum’s vastly underappreciated Greenberg (Wednesday, March 27) stars Ben Stiller in another great dramatic role (think The Royal Tenenbaums and his performance as drug-addict writer Jerry Stahl in Permanent Midnight). Stiller excels as Roger Greenberg, a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who agrees to house-sit for his brother in L.A.  When Roger meets his brother’s assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), sparks fly, even if Roger's narcissistic and neurotic needs give Florence plenty of mixed signals and angry rants about not wanting to give in too a potential relationship a shot. Greenberg is the best-looking of Baumbach’s films, shot by the late Harris Savides, who gives Roger’s world a bright hue despite his anger and contempt for others. The original music by James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem fame) adds to the colorful tones of Baumbach’s layered story of a man looking to break out of his malaise, turn his life around and perhaps give himself, people, and romance a chance.

The last film to screen in the series is Baumbach’s latest feature; the Walker screening marks the area premiere of Frances Ha (Thursday, April 4; the film will open in late May at a Landmark theater), starring and co-written by Greta Gerwig (Greenberg). Shot in black and white, it has been compared to a free-wheeling comedy associated with the French New Wave film era. It also seems to stand apart from other films in the retrospective and could be a change of pace from Baumbach’s previous films. Let’s hope Frances finds a true romantic relationship instead of a self-destructive relationship this time around.

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Jim Brunzell III's picture
Jim Brunzell III

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins [at] yahoo [dot] com) was born in the 70's, went to school in the 80's, played sports in the 90's, and has been writing on film for the Daily Planet since 2007.  He is also the Festival Director and programmer for the Sound Unseen Music/Film/Art festival in the Twin Cities, lead programmer for the Flyway Film Festival in Pepin and Stockholm WI, the creator of "The Defenders" series at the Trylon microcinema and has been working on a novel since finishing college.  You can follow Jim on Twitter at (@JimBrunzell_3).