Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s characters are intellectually sophisticated, yet barely out of grade school where emotions are concerned. Reliably inappropriate, their behavior can be hilariously self-absorbed, brutally revealing, or both at once.
Whether in collaboration with Wes Anderson (they co-wrote “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) or working solo, Baumbach’s droll, scalpel-sharp humor leads him to construct character-rich comedies of manners. Usually very bad manners. Yet even his most insufferable blowhards elicit our empathy. We’ve all been wounded by self-inflicted ridiculousness, just not so stylishly.
Walker Art Center’s retrospective “Noah Baumbach: Visibly Human,” opening Friday, includes five of his films as both writer and director. The films, spanning his 18 years as a filmmaker, run chronologically, from 1995’s post-college comedy “Kicking and Screaming” to his latest, the soon-to-be-released New York City comedy “Frances Ha” (screening April 4).Baumbach joins Village Voice film critic Scott Foundas in the Walker Cinema for a closing-night Regis Dialogue discussion of his career and craft (April 5).
Regrettably, the Walker survey doesn’t include Baumbach’s megaplex screenwriting hit, 2012’s riotous “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.” But as a roundup of the movies he made for theaters that serve cappuccino in the lobby, it’s definitive.
Baumbach was 25 at the time of his assured debut. “Kicking and Screaming” (7:30 p.m. Fri.) takes the raw materials of countless Gen X comedies — a crew of quirky party hounds coping with their own confusing and uncertain future — and hones it to a sheen of verbal brilliance. The focus is on four aimless graduates (Chris Eigeman, Josh Hamilton, Carlos Jacott and Jason Wiles) obsessed by high culture and low, and reluctant to embrace adulthood. They kill time swapping witticisms that feel labored (“If Plato is a fine red wine, then Aristotle is a dry martini”) or uncomfortably insightful (“You have two emotions: antsy and testy”). While there are rough patches — female nudity seldom feels as gratuitous as it does in two scenes stipulated by the distributor — the dialogue already has the eavesdropping-on-absurdity quality of classic New Yorker cartoons.
“The Squid and the Whale” (7:30 p.m. Sat.), based on the divorce of Baumbach’s parents (novelist/film critic Jonathan Baumbach and Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown), stars Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as precocious kids definitively screwed up by the parting of Dad and Mom (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney.) The film is tender, yet satirical and unsparing. Daniels plays a pompous novelist turned teacher who calls Kafka “one of my predecessors.” Eisenberg admires him unquestioningly, more so when the family crumbles, needing someone to side with and someone to blame. Linney, playing a loving but tough-minded pragmatist, is unhelpfully open with the kids about her infidelities. She pairs up with her boys’ airhead tennis teacher (William Baldwin with an awesome Andre Agassi lion-mane) while Daniels buys a ticket on a roller coaster to ruin with provocative student Anna Paquin.
There are emotional crises aplenty in “Margot at the Wedding” (7:30 p.m. Wed.), a pitch-black farce about two intellectual sisters who manage to turn a theoretically joyous occasion into a game of scorpions in a bottle. Margot (Nicole Kidman ) and her son Claude (Zane Pais) visit the Atlantic coast home of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), for her marriage to Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed musician. Margot and Pauline snipe at each other with ostentatious therapy-speak, and Malcolm, surveying his blubbery nudity in the mirror, emits wails of insecurity. He’s obviously on the verge of a pre-marital freakout, and when it arrives, it’s a corker. The film aims for a very bitter comic tone, the sort of thing David Mamet or Jules Feiffer or Neil LaBute might write in a bad mood.
The gap between mortifying humor and migraine-inducing family drama is infinitesimal in “Greenberg” (7:30 p.m., March 27). Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a has-been musician, part-time carpenter and world-class grumbler who spends part of every day writing snarky letters of complaint to corporations, politicians and two-bit cab companies. When he returns to Los Angeles after years in New York, his old pal Ivan (Rhys Ifans, resigned and wry) has to take him everywhere — Greenberg claims he’s forgotten how to drive — and he quickly piles unbecoming requests on his wealthy brother’s passive personal assistant, Flo (Greta Gerwig, the star of Baumbach’s new “Frances Ha”). When he makes a clumsy pass, she acquiesces apologetically. “I’m wearing kind of an ugly bra,” she says as he wrestles her out of it. Stiller shows admirable courage here, playing a perfectly unpleasant man with bold conviction.