At the beginning of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, a husband and a wife list what they love about each other. It’s beautiful; he loves that she makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things, that she’s the family hairdresser. She loves that he takes all of her moods seriously and never makes her feel bad about them, that he’s orderly and energy-conscious and that he loves all the things you’re supposed to hate about being a dad, like the tantrums. Then you find out the two are indulging in this as part of a couples’ therapy session because they are separating and that this is really a love story about divorce.
Action with its exciting plotlines, romances with their quirky characters, horror with its scares, and sci-fi and fantasy films which transport you to another world- none of these capture my interest like a family drama does. In particular, Baumbach’s ones. I’m curious about spies, aliens, whether or not he loves her and what’s behind that door, but what piques my interest the most, is what ordinary people in this regular world are doing.
Not just what they are doing- but what they’re thinking and how they are feeling. Why they do what they do and act the way they act. How is this person unique in a way so many others are unique in, I want to know. What emotion, what feeling does she have which I have too, and how does she deal with it? Or what does he feel that I don’t feel, and how does he navigate life feeling that way, dealing with that frustration, that anger, that loneliness? How is each person so complex that we are unable to fully understand each other, yet so alike that at the same time, we do understand each other?
I read Anna Karenina and Beloved to delve into human psychology and I watch family dramas for the same reason. There’s something about the claustrophobic and in many ways, unchanging nature of family that springs an abundance of emotions: happiness, affection, sadness, anger, jealousy, boredom, frustration, passion, rage, self-pity, remorse, resentment- I could go on. Great family dramas like Baumbach’s bring all of these out.
The first film of his I watched was The Squid and The Whale. My flight was delayed, I was stuck on the plane, and the movie was downloaded on my Amazon Prime App. An acquaintance had recommended it so I thought, might as well. The flight didn’t take off for the next hour but I didn’t notice; my eyes were glued to the screen. There’s nothing revolutionary about the movie’s story: a couple, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney), both writers, are getting divorced and their children are struggling to come to terms with this. One child worships his father and sees his mother in the wrong, the other, the younger one, admires his mother and sides with her. Baumbach’s brilliant screenplay, enriched by his own experiences, focuses on the internal struggles of each character in a manner which shows why they behave the way they do externally.
It isn’t the most novel or complex concept, but the way it’s done is subtle and eloquent. 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Cline) both try to grow up too fast. Frank starts acting like his mother’s new boyfriend Ivan (William Baldwin) and having been forgotten one weekend by both his parents, drinks beer and faints from intoxication alone. Walt begins to act like his narcissistic father and in his quest for his dad’s approval, performs Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” in the school talent show and lies about having written it (he is of course, found out.) Walt wants only to win his father’s approval, but it’s clear its one he’ll never earn, because his arrogant, once-promising novelist father isn’t all that great but by constantly spouting smug statements of his own success and looking down at everyone and everything else, Bernard unknowingly tells his son he’ll only love him if and when he does the things which Bernard thinks are great.
And so Walt lies, steered by Bernard’s unquenchable thirst. Walt doesn’t see this, but Baumbach shows us, when Walt calls a book “Kafkaesque” after hearing his father do so. The problem? The book he’s describing is Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. “Because it is Kafka,” the girl who Walt is trying to impress says in response. “So it would have to be.” Walt doesn’t muster much of a response because he never loved or even read Kafka, his father did. By focusing on small moments like these, we see that there is a lot more to Walt’s pretension and his haughty manner, that just like in people in real life, the external doesn’t completely reflect the internal, but instead creates a whole new projection which is never quite reality. Sometimes we act how we think others want us to without even realising it, and when we don’t achieve perfection in the role, we blame ourselves, without realising that we’re trespassing into an arena we never needed to be in.
The theme of parenthood, especially fatherhood, having a profound effect on children is one that recurs in Baumbach’s other works. In The Meyerowitz Stories, a patriarchal, egoistic father once again produces irrevocable psychological harm. He tortures because he is tortured. Like Bernard, Harold’s (Dustin Hoffman) artistic career is in decline, and with it, his sense of self. His three children are stuck in a purgatory where they long for his approval and at the same time attempt to convince themselves they don’t need it. It’s fascinating to see that the two children whose childhood Harold was barely present in, Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), are ready to care for their father and pronounce him genius while the child that Harold loves the most, Matthew, resents him. “Maybe I need to believe my dad was a genius because I don’t want his life to be worthless,” Danny says near the end of the film, at an exhibition of his father’s artwork, “If he isn’t a great artist, that he means he was just a prick.” In this tender moment of realisation, Baumbach makes a point about the idolation of artists which excuses all the terrible deeds they do as well as a larger point about how we justify our loved ones’ mistake for the sake of ourselves.
Another poignant line from the film, delivered with just the right amount of sentimentality by Sandler, sticks with me: “You know sometimes I wish Dad had done one horrible, unforgivable thing, something specific I could be angry about. But it isn’t one thing.” It’s the tiny things, a few everyday, Danny explains, that make him feel unloved. His emotion is extremely relatable; small things upset us, anger us, even make us happy, yet it’s hard to verbalise how these minutiae could produce such an effect on us.
The little things influence us all, molding us in ways that take us in different directions. This is explored in Baumbach’s latest, Oscar nominated Marriage Story as well, as both Nicole (Scarlett Johanson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are, for the most part, good to each other. They separate not because of one monumental reason, but because of several tiny ones that slowly wear the relationship down. We first enter the couple’s world through Nicole’s perspective and so begin supporting her side of things but after about an hour, we’re in Charlie’s mind, and we understand that neither is necessarily wrong or a villain. Charlie is perfectionistic, judgemental and brutally honest out of love, while Nicole doesn’t express many of her desires because they run contrary to what Charlie wants.
At some level they both recognize the merit in each other’s characters, yet at the same time they know they don’t fit together. “You and I both know you chose this life. You wanted it until you didn’t,” Charlie says to Nicole. Charlie as well as Nicole’s mother and sister are unable to understand her decision to divorce for a long time. It’s the fact that her needs are met but her desires aren’t fulfilled, that leads Nicole to pursue the divorce.Their break-up is the result of a series of misunderstandings; different ways of showing love and different ways of receiving it. To me it is then an exploration of the biggest problems we as humans face; how to love in a way which other person understands, and how to understand the love of others.
All three movies of Baumbach’s films end not happily or sadly, but somewhere in between. There’s a kind of cynicism in that, in showing that life just continues as it is. For my friend, an ending where character’s don’t improve in some manner is pointless. But for me, there’s a sense of relief in just seeing why things are the way they are, but not expecting them to change. It seems true to life, more realistic than cynical.
Beginnings and endings of stories are important, so I’ll end with three beautiful endings. The Meyerowitz Stories end with Danny finally becoming a little selfish; he smashes a plate of cookies on the ground after Harold asks him to stay just to take care of him, while continuing to treat him as if he’s dispensable. Danny leaves to go to his brother’s house in sunny L.A and on the way to the airport runs into a woman he is interested in and starts a conversation with her. We learn that at least for sometime, Danny will do what he wants rather than his father does. In the end of Marriage Story Nicole lets Charlie take their son home even though it is her day with him. While Charlie carries their sleeping son, Nicole noticies her ex-husband’s shoelaces are open and bends down to tie them for him. They’re not in love, but they do love. And my favourite, in The Squid and The Whale Walt remembers that he was once much closer to his mother than he was too his father. He was young and couldn’t look at a sculpture of a squid and a whale fighting so his mother would describe it to him while he closed his eyes out of fear. Now, grown up, he runs to the museum and looks at the sculpture himself. He’s been forced to grow up.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.