Before The Squid and the Whale
Noah Baumbach's early, brilliant movies.
In a recent interview in New York magazine, Noah Baumbach says that his new film, The Squid and the Whale, represents a mature turn in his filmmaking: "I wanted to make more emotional movies that were less about being clever." This seems to be a gentle cut at his first two efforts, Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Mr. Jealousy (1997). Baumbach, not unlike the characters in his films, is being unfair to himself. Sure, these movies have a talky, sophomoric cleverness, and they take on the themes—post-college paralysis, romantic jealousy—that apply most to people in their late 20s. You can see why Baumbach, now 37, might view them as artifacts of a shallower, sillier stage of life. But, like the openly autobiographical Squid, Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy are acutely, almost unbearably, personal and emotional films.
The setup of Kicking and Screaming (which, the name of this column notwithstanding, is still available only on VHS) is an indie-auteur cliché—a bunch of thoroughly postmodernized liberal-arts grads sit around talking, and talking, and talking. They've spent so much energy spinning out oh-so-knowing interpretations of their predicament that they are now imprisoned within their own tropes. They can no longer bring themselves to do anything. Max * (Chris Eigeman) describes his own extreme version of this affliction: "I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. … I can't go to the bar because I've already looked back on it in my memory, and I didn't have a good time." This navel-gazing would get tired if Baumbach's best lines didn't cut so sharply into his abiding themes. As his friends head out the door, Otis (Carlos Jacott), a pathetic man-child, remains riveted to the television, stuck in a perpetual state of delay.
"I just want to see if they get this stain out," he says.
"It's a detergent commercial, Otis," Max says. "Of course they'll get it out."
"Yeah, well, that's bicycle grease."
Lingering behind all the slacker hijinks is a sweet romantic subplot involving the apparent Baumbach stand-in Grover (Josh Hamilton) and his senior-year girlfriend Jane (Olivia d'Abo). This is another area where Baumbach, through sheer generosity of spirit, takes a cliché and promotes it to something more dignified, like an archetype.
Maybe Baumbach thinks it's just him, but the fantasy of the spunky beauty with the darling overbite who sits across from you in your creative writing seminar and vivisects your short stories but then later admits that they show real talent and then falls in love with you is pretty much universal among male English majors. Baumbach makes this familiar, almost fantastic, story resonate with several deft touches. While the film's primary action takes place in the limbo of the year after graduation, the romance is told in flashbacks of the previous year, styled in a way that evokes the wistful quality of romantic memory. They begin in black-and-white freeze frame, then take on color, and then roll into slow motion before coming fully alive. Baumbach deepens these squirmy courtship scenes with perfect music. (For a time, I wished I were a filmmaker just so I could put Freedy Johnston's "The Lucky One" in one of my movies, but then Baumbach beat me to it.) The nicest touch, though, was finding Olivia d'Abo for the role of Jane. D'Abo's had a checkered career, heavy on straight-to-video action movies, but Kicking and Screaming shows her to be an inventive and charming comic actress. If you still don't have a face to put to your creative-writing-seminar fantasy, rent Kicking and Screaming.
Baumbach's follow-up, Mr. Jealousy, is more antic but less funny than its predecessor. What the film lacks in comic dialogue, though, it makes up for with a brutally comprehensive portrait of romantic jealousy—the sort of bitter candor that distinguishes The Squid and the Whale. When Lester (Eric Stoltz), the eponymous Mr. Jealousy, admits that he constantly imagines his new girlfriend Ramona (Annabella Sciorra) with her old boyfriends, his friend Vince (Jacott again), sounds a caution: "I think you're touching on a darker area that we're not supposed to think about." But Lester does more than think about it. He succumbs to just about every masochistic urge that afflicts the jealous guy. (Don't ask me how I know.) He calls Ramona late at night, repeatedly, and then goes to her house to check up on her when she doesn't answer. He maneuvers her into telling him about her old lovers (all of them), which only makes him sick. He even accuses her of being too easy for sleeping with him on their first date. "You're jealous of yourself?" she asks. (The nonjealous will think this a too-clever moment of comic overstatement. If only.)
The film gains some needed momentum when Lester follows ex-boyfriend Dashiell (Eigeman again) to his group therapy session and then enrolls in the group himself. Here he gets to live the ultimate jealous-guy fantasy/nightmare: listening to his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend talk in lurid detail about what a "tart" she is. At this point Mr. Jealousy starts to rival Kicking and Screaming for high-quality laughs, thanks largely to the wonderful Jacott. Stoltz's Lester impersonates Jacott's Vince in therapy, and Vince becomes addicted to the secondhand therapeutic insights Lester relates to him and won't let Lester end his charade. And then Vince joins the group, impersonating Lester, except that he speaks in an English accent that drifts randomly into a Scottish brogue. Jacott is terrific in these scenes, with a hilarious deadpan affect. You laugh just thinking about him.
The irony of Mr. Jealousy is that the people who might most identify with its protagonist will find the movie, at times, almost impossible to watch. Yet this queasiness is exactly why Baumbach is wrong about his earlier films. They're not just clever. They're true and honest and—like the best comedy—a little sick.