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Posts Tagged ‘Noah Baumbach’

Some people have the kind of creativity and work ethic that leaves me slack-jawed and agog with incomprehension: I have spoken in the past of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy-trilogy-in-a-fortnight regime of decades gone by; then of course there is the film-a-year routine of Woody Allen: in both cases, never mind the quality, feel the heft. (Writing one bad short novel a year often places an insupportable strain on my own creative juices.) Making what looks like a bid for the same kind of bracket is Noah Baumbach, who is releasing his second film as writer and director in less than six months.

The comparison with Allen feels particularly appropriate, given that both men seem drawn to a particular type of low-key New York comedy-drama. Baumbach’s last film, While We’re Young, still had a flavour of that about it, even though it featured mainstream stars and was a comparatively broad comedy. The new film, Mistress America, is more of a piece with his previous work, especially 2013’s Frances Ha, and perhaps as a consequence feels even more Allenesque.

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Like Frances Ha, Mistress America has Baumbach co-writing the script with his lead performer, Greta Gerwig (the pair have one of those enviable personal-professional partnerships), although this time the film is less self-consciously arty. Well, it’s not in black and white, anyway.

That said, it’s quite a long time before Gerwig turns up on screen, for the film’s viewpoint character is Tracy (Lola Kirke), a young woman who has just started college in New York and is finding the experience to be not all she had hoped for. On top of her various academic and creative struggles (she is an aspiring writer), her mother is remarrying, leaving her with the prospect of a brand new stepsister. Eventually Tracy decides to meet her, discovering her impending sibling to be Brooke (Gerwig), one of those irresistible free-spirited types, of no particularly defined career but with plans to become a bohemian restauranteur. Tracy finds herself drawn to Brooke and the two become close friends, but could it be that neither of them is being completely honest with the other about their motivations? A downturn in Brooke’s fortunes soon exposes the faultlines in their relationship…

Rather like Frances Ha, Mistress America has drawn glowing reviews that I can’t quite bring myself to entirely agree with. This is not to say that it’s a bad film or indeed that there are many bad things in it, just that it has the same slightly unfocused quality as its forebear. The structure of the film is interesting, if a bit odd: the bookending acts of the story ramble around between a university campus and various places in the city, but the second act is confined entirely to the interior of a swish upmarket house somewhere else entirely – for the duration of this segment the film adopts the style and conventions of a screwball farce, with anything up to eight characters wandering about in a scene rattling off snappy and arch dialogue at each other. It is a very distinct change of style, for if nothing else farce is a precision artform, while in every other respect precision is not really one of Mistress America‘s virtues.

For me it was never really clear exactly what kind of film this was supposed to be – a college-years coming of age tale? Another wry piece about boho New Yorkers? A comedy of manners? A character piece? A full-on farce? The script touches on all of these things, while the direction changes pace and focus with equal deftness: there’s a particularly noticeable 80s vibe about some parts of the film, especially the soundtrack. But the film has a contemporary setting, and isn’t about the 1980s in any real sense, so is this just because the film-makers thought it would sound distinctive and cool? You may be wondering just why the film is called Mistress America: well, it’s the title of a short story Tracy secretly writes about Brooke, based on one of her more off-the-wall ideas for a TV show. This is of some relevance to the plot, but it still feels like an oblique and slightly arbitrary choice of title – a placeholder name they never quite got around to changing.

While I was never completely sure what kind of film this is supposed to be, or indeed what it’s about, I did enjoy watching it a lot, in a sort of living-in-the-moment kind of way. I will happily watch Greta Gerwig in just about anything (has anyone thought about giving her the title role in the forthcoming Captain Marvel?), and she is on customarily fine form here, milking her big comic scenes for all they are worth, while still managing to extract pathos and poignancy from the film’s quieter moments. She is well supported by Kirke, who is just as good in what’s an equally demanding part, while the various supporting performances are all fine. The film is frequently amusing and actually made me laugh quite a few times.

So all in all I would say that Mistress America is pretty good, and certainly more accessible and funny than Frances Ha. It still has the same rambling, rough around the edges quality in places, but here there is more wit and colour, and more of a sense of fun. If Baumbach and Gerwig keep plugging away in this vein they may yet come up with something very special and genuinely accomplished, but until they do, Mistress America is a smart low-key comedy that passes the time very pleasantly indeed.

 

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Once more unto the Phoenix, where – it would seem – the blight of allocated seating now extends even unto weekday evening screenings. The staff don’t like the policy, and I and apparently many other of the more vocal patrons of the joint don’t like the policy. And yet a poll of the membership has come down in favour of turning the getting of a decent seat in the smaller screen into a ruthless tactical exercise. Hey ho.

Luckily, there were only five of us in there when I went the other day, to see Noah Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young. Baumbach is the kind of director whose name I vaguely know, and whose films I have have heard of, but I wouldn’t have been able to put those two bits of information together, and I was still slightly surprised to learn I’ve actually seen one of his other movies (Frances Ha from 2013 – and, of course, anyone who gets on so well with Greta Gerwig is clearly a good egg). Said movie struck me as a bit Woody Allen-esque in its subject and setting, and the same goes for While We’re Young, which is a comedy-drama about well-off metropolitan types.

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Well, probably more of a full-on comedy, I suppose. Regular readers will know my aversion to most mainstream American comedies, on the grounds that they are – erm, how can I put this? – not funny, but the fact that While We’re Young opens with an extended quote from Ibsen should tip the attentive viewer off that this is not a typical mainstream American comedy.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a happily-married couple in their early forties (as the theme of acting your own age is central to the movie, I feel obliged to mention that Stiller is not) who believe themselves to be happy with their lifestyle. Both are film-makers, one way or another, and they have accepted they’re not going to have children. This puts them rather at odds with most of their set, whose lives essentially revolve around grappling with infants of various sizes.

The plot proper gets underway when they encounter another couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Jamie and Darby are twenty years their junior and Josh and Cornelia find themselves rather captivated by the passion for life that the young people have – the fact that Jamie is a fan of Joshua’s back catalogue may have something to do with it, as well.

But is everything quite as it seems? Could it be that Josh and Cornelia have simply embarked on a futile attempt to cling onto the vestiges of their own youth? And is Jamie’s interest in Josh quite as straightforward as it seems? It soon becomes apparent that the generation gap is still in existence, and before too long someone’s going to come a cropper falling into it.

Fans of the bodily-fluids-and-profanity school of humour may not find much to attract them here, but While We’re Young made me laugh a lot, particularly in its first half. There are few more reliable sources of comedy than people failing to act in an age-appropriate way and the sight of Ben Stiller attempting to bond with hipsters and Naomi Watts tackling a hip-hop dance class provides many opportunities for proper laughs. The film has a nice line in sharp, deadpan dialogue, too: ‘You’ve made a six-and-a-half-hour film that feels seven hours too long,’ someone tells Josh of his latest opus, while a scene in which he is diagnosed with arthritis by his doctor is also extremely droll: ‘Arthritis arthritis?’ he yelps, distraught. ‘I usually just say it the once,’ replies the physician, unflappably.

Above all, this part of the film is a smart and insightful comedy of manners and social embarrassment with some great set pieces and moments of real perceptiveness: there’s a nice sequence quietly drawing attention to the way that middle-aged people are more likely to adopt new technology than the young. And it does address what seems to me to be a problem for the childless thirty- and forty-something: what exactly do you do with your life to give it value, without either seeming self-indulgent or looking like you’re in a state of arrested development? I’ve seen plenty of people in this situation who wind up taking refuge in the dreaded Ironic Sensibility.

However, there’s not a great deal of scope for plot here, which is probably why the second half of the film concerns itself with knottier and less universal issues – namely, the values of the different generations and whether a lack of commonality here is a serious problem, or only to be expected (or perhaps both). Baumbach’s line of approach on this is the question of authenticity in documentary film-making, which has been a live issue over the last few years in the wake of films like Catfish and Searching For Sugar Man, which were accused of either manipulating the truth or being out-and-out hoaxes. There’s what looks very like a gloves-off swipe at Catfish in particular here, but Baumbach’s attempt to tie this in to the theme of generational difference feels just a little laboured. It’s true that many younger people nowadays interact with culture in a wholly different way to how things were in the pre-digital age, but then so do quite a few older ones as well.

It’s also perhaps a little disappointing that the second half of the film is centred so firmly on Joshua, while the first part was told at least partly from Cornelia’s point of view. This is not because of any weakness in Ben Stiller’s performance – he is as accomplished an actor as ever – but simply because it turns the film into a piece about a middle-aged white guy possibly heading for a mid-life crisis, and we are not short of iterations of that story. It makes the film a little more conventional than it perhaps needed to be. (When it comes to the younger couple, the film gives much more prominence to Adam Driver, too: apart from a couple of scenes, Amanda Seyfried really gets quite little to do.)

The same is true of how the story resolves itself. To be fair, the film is largely built around the premise that a refusal to admit you are ageing is going to result in you looking increasingly foolish as time goes by, but this isn’t quite the same thing as the whole-hearted endorsement of thorough-going normalcy that the end of the movie actually feels like. Then again, this is ultimately still a mainstream film on some level, so I suppose one shouldn’t be too surprised. While We’re Young  is at least a mainstream film with some intelligence and wit about it, and one which made me laugh a lot despite my ultimate misgivings about parts of it. Worth seeing, especially if your fortieth birthday is not too distant a memory.

 

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It sometimes seems to me that there’s no rational system responsible for determining which films get a full theatrical release and which end up languishing on obscure DVD releases. I mean, I know it’s the middle of summer, and wise counter-programming means that it makes sense to to release something quiet and quirky that will appeal to a more female-skewed audience than a muscular and loud comic-book adaptation, but there are surely lots of low-budget, low-fi, unconventional indie films contending for a theatrical run at any given moment – how do they decide which one actually gets a shot?

The lucky winner this weekend in the UK was Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote with the leading lady, Greta Gerwig. Given that this is a film of a type which actually feels terribly familiar regardless of the specific details, I suspect that it is in cinemas due to an incremental drip-drip-drip of minor points in its favour: Baumbach is a writer and director with a certain pedigree, both indie (The Squid and the Whale) and mainstream (Madagascar 3), while Gerwig has slowly been accumulating a solid CV as an actress in various comedy-dramas – I first saw her in Damsels in Distress, then again in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love.

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The Allen connection is perhaps pertinent, as Frances Ha at times seems to be consciously aping the great man’s work on a number of levels. This is the story – and I suppose you could say it’s only a story in the broadest sense of the term – of Frances (Gerwig), a not-entirely-successful ballet dancer living in New York. Her life is quite chaotic, but at least she knows she can depend on her best friend and flatmate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner, sprung from the loins of Sting). But then Mickey decides to move out, and Frances can’t afford to pay the rent on her own.

So begins an odyssey of flatsharing and other temporary living arrangements, strained relationships and unwise snap decisions in all areas of life. It would be misleading to suggest that nothing actually happens in this film, because relationships break down, people go on impromptu weekend breaks in Paris, waste baskets are vomited into and dinner parties go awkwardly – but at the same time it doesn’t really cohere as a narrative or go anywhere except in the broadest terms.

The slightly disjointed storyline and focus on a certain kind of arty New Yorker do recall a Woody Allen film from the great man’s middle period, as does the black and white photography – Baumbach has admitted this is an homage to Manhattan, amongst others (though there is a level of frankness in the dialogue not to be found in your average Allen movie). That said, it differs from the best Woody Allen movies in the key respect that it is not nearly as sharp or funny or focussed.

Frances Ha is a movie which has enjoyed good notices pretty much across the board, being  acclaimed as ‘hilarious’, ‘irresistible’, and so on. I would tend to agree with these, with the proviso that this is a hilarious and irresistible comedy that didn’t make me laugh very much and didn’t effortlessly win me over, either.

I’m as surprised as anyone to be so lukewarm about this film, as I really do like Greta Gerwig as an actress and there isn’t anything about it that actually annoyed me. Gerwig’s performance is winning, but as this film is essentially a vehicle for her particular talents this shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. And the story has a certain poignancy: it evokes the feeling of being stuck in a post-adolescent mode of life while all your friends have moved on into adulthood rather well, even if some of the set-pieces come across as a bit contrived.

I suppose my problem is that this film really exists as a character piece, a look at Frances and her life – and because she and it come across as so improbable, the whole enterprise feels a bit insubstantial. This is partly down to the script, which isn’t witty or tight enough to make you prepared to ignore the various improbabilities going on, and partly down to the casting. I like Greta Gerwig a lot. But I still think it’s a bit disingenous to cast someone so obviously bright, charismatic, and attractive as a ditzy, undateable flake. Then again, am I being too hard on the film? Hmmm.

Well, I didn’t actually dislike it – quite the opposite, if we’re honest. I just didn’t have an uproarious, life-affirming time watching it. I suppose I’ve just seen a few too many New York-set slice-of-life character studies about quirky arty types. It is nicely put together, bits of it have a sort of overall ring of truth, and the performances are generally good. But it’s not one of the best films I’ve seen recently, nor really the most entertaining film I’ve seen with Greta Gerwig in it. I still think she is an actress to watch for, though.

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