Divorced from the truth
Noah Baumbach’s evisceration of his own father in the Squid and the Whale launched his directing career. Twelve years on, and his own marriage over, his latest film takes a different perspective. Interview by Andrew Billen.
Noah Baumbach is Woody Allen’s artistic heir, joking in earnest about the big stuff. Yet it was the director of The Graduate, Mike Nichols, who nailed The Squid and the Whale, when he saw the younger director’s first hit film.
‘‘He reached out to me,’’ Baumbach says, ‘‘and said, ‘It reminded me of why I got into movies in the first place. It was for revenge.’’’
Dressed in a well-cut dark suit and blue-checked shirt, Baumbach, a still preppy 48, is in a London hotel discussing with me his latest and darkest comedy, The Meyerowitz Stories, which is screening now on Netflix. Starring his previous collaborator Ben Stiller, an unrecognisably nuanced Adam Sandler and, as it happens, The Graduate‘s Dustin Hoffman, The Meyerowitz Stories levers Baumbach up a league.
For all that, it proves hard to discuss without reference to the 12-year-old, low-budget Squid. As an obvious start, both can be read as a roasting of a really bad dad. Seen through the eyes of Walt, a teenage boy witnessing his parents’ break-up, Squid was a blatant evisceration of Noah’s father, Jonathan Baumbach.
Indeed, Jeff Daniels, in playing the character Bernard, even wore Jonathan’s cord jacket. The novelist turned college teacher is characterised by lofty intellectual snobbery (‘‘It’s minor Fitzgerald’’), which leads him to neglect his family in favour of the life of the Bernard mind. Our faith in its quality is undermined by his inability to get his later work into print, his rash seduction of a student and his vicious rivalry with his younger son at ping pong.
Bernard’s increasingly successful writer wife, whose affairs are the immediate casus belli of their divorce, is given only a slightly easier ride.
Baumbach, when I ask, says it took his father a second viewing to ‘‘see’’ the portrayal, but insists he is still on good terms with his parents, who did indeed divorce when he was in his teens. ‘‘They’re artists. They know what’s fiction. I did use autobiography in a more clear-cut way in it - the jacket - but the movie is also invented.’’
Life writes its own ironies. When Baumbach made Squid he was married to the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Leigh divorced him, however, a few years later, shortly after the birth of their son and after their work on his 2010 movie, Greenberg. It later became public that Baumbach had become attached to Greta Gerwig, the younger actress who starred with Leigh in the film. He now lives with her while sharing custody of his son, Rohmer.
The awkwardness of such arrangements was summed up by a line in Squid: ‘‘Joint custody blows.’’
Given those events, I ask if he would have been kinder to the parents had he made Squid subsequently.
‘‘The narrative of Squid was driven by Walt and his perspective. I felt at the time I was just going to press down on his storyline. I think, yes, it is likely if I did it again now . . . I mean, I’m
"The more I do this, the more I kind of see how what I do is a kind of conversation with my childhood." Noah Baumbach
sure I would do something different. Maybe I would try to make it more even-handed.’’
The test, really, is how you read, to give it its full title, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). After a fruitful spell investigating women’s lives in Frances Ha and Mistress America, both of them starring and cowritten with Gerwig, Baumbach is back on parents and siblings.
Some scenes in Stories seem to be direct echoes of Squid: a father unable to find a parking space, a physical fight between brothers (now more ridiculous given Stiller’s and Sandler’s years), the dad in hospital (but this time for something serious). The big difference is that Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz, the father, although as self-occupied and resentful of others’ success as Bernard in Squid, is old and ailing.
The film narrates the return of Harold’s two sons, the unemployed Danny (Sandler), the successful money man Matthew (Stiller) and their damaged sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), to his erratic orbit. The emotionally correct valedictory for a parent, a doctor tells them, goes thus: ‘‘I love you; forgive me; I forgive you; thank you; goodbye.’’ It proves a hard litany.
Baumbach says the Gerwig films were personal too – they were partly love letters to her – but viewed life from a different and specifically ‘‘woman’s perspective’’. I suggest also they freed him to address his childhood from different perspectives.
‘‘That’s how I feel,’’ he says. ‘‘The more I do this, the more I kind of see how what I do is a kind of conversation with my childhood.’’
To tell the story from different angles, the film is divided into five chapters – although it is notable that Harold does not get his. As with Daniels’s Bernard, however, Hoffman’s Harold dominates.
Hoffman, 80, did not initially want to play the role, reckoning he had played dying quite often enough – ever since Midnight Cowboy, in fact – but was persuaded to do so by his son Jacob. He and Baumbach met regularly before the shoot to discuss the project ‘‘and their lives’’. This, he says, helped to defuse the thought on day one: ‘‘Can you imagine what your 17-yearold self would have said?’’
Harold resembles Jonathan Baumbach in several ways. The most obvious is that each has married four times, a matter of evident fascination for the 84-year-old Jonathan, whose latest work is called The Pavilion of Former Wives.
Harold’s professional details are lifted, however, from Jonathan’s father, Harold Baumbach, who died in 2002, aged 98.
Whereas the fictional Harold is a neglected sculptor, the real Harold was a neglected abstract painter, a contemporary of Mark Rothko and Milton Avery. His New York Times obituary noted that he insisted on ‘‘going his own way’’ and was ‘‘allergic to fashio
‘‘I never witnessed it,’’ his grandson says, ‘‘but if people said the wrong thing about a painting of his in a gallery, he would just remove it and say, ‘You can’t look at it.’ ‘‘
In the movie, Harold’s reverence for art oppresses his sons, who judge themselves failures for not having become successful artists.
‘‘Art was the family religion,’’ Baumbach says of his father’s childhood. Given that Noah is who he is and that his younger brother, Nico, teaches film theory at Columbia University in New York, it seems likely that the faith prevailed unto their upbringing. Their mother, Georgia Brown, is also a writer, sometime film critic on The Village Voice.
I tell him that critics think he is resistant to tragedy. He wants names, but says: ‘‘Maybe I’m just intimidated by the idea of saying, ‘I’m about to write a serious movie about serious issues.’ Maybe I have to think of it that way to kind of fool myself. Whatever it is, I always think of them as funny and as a result there is a kind of tension between the comedy and drama.’’
Stories may be seen as debate about failure and success. He says he has known both. After his first films, but before Squid, there was financial uncertainty and a ‘‘period of real searching’’. He credits therapy for allowing him to make Squid.
In recent years, of course, mainly he has known success. He is happy when I say that he is our generation’s Woody Allen.
‘‘You know, he was from Brooklyn and Jewish. We came from similar places culturally. But also in his New York movies, Manhattan and Annie Hall, there was such a fantasy of what your adult life could be if you left Brooklyn and went to Manhattan.’’ Those big apartments? ‘‘And dating Diane Keaton. It worked both as ‘this feels so real to me’ and also ‘what a great fantasy’ – which is kind of what movies should be.’’
And now, according to The New Yorker, Baumbach does live in a ‘‘never-ending’’ apartment in Manhattan.
‘‘But I didn’t get to date Diane Keaton.’’ Gerwig, I should add, whose directorial debut, Lady Bird ,is attracting even better reviews than Stories, is not in the room. – The Times
Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have worked together on movies including Frances Ha and Mistress America.