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The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Baumbach's third feature, The Squid and the Whale, received the best reviews of his career for its display of the disparaging war of divorce and the collateral repercussions on a family. Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels give potent and impressive performances as the married couple going their separate ways. Both actors fully embody their roles and deliver Baumbach's stinging dialogue with a mix of hilarity and heartbreak. It's some of their finest work. Their children, played solidly by Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg, portray the confusion of dealing with the aftermath of divorce from the perspective of youth. Baumbach captures the brutal honesty of family discord, while finding the humor in the awkwardness of restructuring a family. The movie earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Baumbach's excellent script. This is a movie of savage wit and raw, but tender emotions. The success of the movie would lead him to take on projects attracting some of the best actors in the industry.
Margot at the Wedding (2007)
Following the critical success of The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach delivered his follow-up, Margot at the Wedding, which stars Nicole Kidman as Margot, a single mother who, along with her son Claude (Zane Pais), decide to visit her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) after she announces that she is marrying less-than-impressive Malcolm (Jack Black). The storm the sisters create leaves behind a mess of fractured relationships and exposed family secrets. The movie received mostly positive reviews, but without the praise of Baumbach's previous effort. There were some critics who felt the characters were unlikable and emotionally chilly. For the most part though, the movie still utilizes Baumbach's gift with actors, giving Kidman and Jason Leigh some of their best performances. Baumbach displays his sharp dialogue for darkly funny moments and an honesty about sibling relationships, in which he captures the complexities of that bond. The movie ranks as one of Baumbach's more underrated works.
For his next movie, Greenberg, Baumbach cast Ben Stiller as a man from Los Angeles, who moved to New York years ago and returns to L.A. to figure out his life while he house-sits for his brother (Chris Messina). He soon sparks with his brother's assistant (Greta Gerwig). The movie earned praise from critics, once again for his sharp trademark use of dialogue (which was co-written by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and casting known actors in uncommon roles. Stiller does some of his finest work as a lost man, trying to figure where his life should go. Stiller does not always make his character likable, but it always feels authentic. Baumbach gives him the freedom to tone down his comedic shtick and allow for dramatic nuances to enter. The movie marks the acting debut of Gerta Gerwig, who is luminous and winning in her work. Her romance with Stiller is filled with awkwardness, but also some tenderness. Baumbach does not shy away from the dark elements of this character study, but there is also a sense of hope and empathy for his characters navigating adulthood.
France Ha (2012)
Baumbach did a complete left turn for his next movie, Frances Ha, by shooting the entire movie in black-and-white and creating his most optimistic work to-date. The story follows a New York woman (Greta Gerwig), who does not really have an apartment, apprentices for a dance company (though she's not really a dancer), and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possibility fades. The movie marks his second collaboration with Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script with Baumbach. What they create is a touching, funny, and compassionate experience. Critics applauded the movie, calling it one of Baumbach's best movies. A lot of the praise came to Baumbach's directing, which beautifully uses the rich black-and-white cinematography of New York city to illustrate a woman in her 20's, exploring her uncertain future. His and Gerwig's dialogue has a sharpness in its humor and Baumbach appears to be channeling Woody Allen with his approach, but with Gerwig's influence, there is also a new layer of warm empathy that radiates the entire picture, which makes these characters humane. So much of the success of the movie lies in the wonderful performance by Gerwig, who injects the movie with an infectious energy of optimism that is contagious. The movie does not shy away from her pitfalls, but Gerwig and Baumbach never allow Frances to be a victim and allow her optimism to carry her through the rough patches of life. We marvel at the honesty of a woman inventing herself and being true to herself. One of Baumbach's most purely entertaining movies.
Baumbach has demonstrated through his various movies that he has a keen eye for capturing the messiness of family dynamics and sharply displaying the damage that people can cause with their words. In addition, he brings compassion to his stories of lost souls, which allow the audience to root for them, even if their flaws are all too recognizable. At the end of the day, his characters are navigating the uncertain terrain of adulthood the best they can. Baumbach as writer/director understands these complexities with clarity, which is why his movies resonate. I look forward to seeing While We're Young and exploring what new facet of adulthood Baumbach has uncovered.