Unlovable Characters: Transition, loss and love in the films of Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach was one of a multitude of “wonder boys” who arose during the American independent film explosion in the 1990s. Two of his films, “Kicking and Screaming” (1995) and “Mr. Jealousy” (1997)—both of which he directed and wrote, while still in his 20s no less—led him to be listed as one of Newsweek’s “Ten New Faces of 1996.” And yet it would take nearly a decade, until the release of the semi-autobiographical “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), for Baumbach to find his place as an artist of significance in the contemporary cinematic landscape.

Baumbach has continued to explore the themes of transition, loss and commitment, themes that were at the heart of “Squid,” in his subsequent works “Margot at the Wedding” (2007), “Greenberg” and “Frances Ha” (2013). And it is these themes that make Baumbach’s work so important from a spiritual perspective. They are also why the work of a seemingly atheistic filmmaker could be of such relevance to a Christian audience.

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Baumbach’s films examine the convergence of past and future in the ephemeral present. His characters, like all of us, are either attempting to forget events they cannot or pining for a past that never really existed. Their present is transition, be it divorce, recovery, post-collegiate life or marriage. But these external transitions only serve as catalyst and metaphor to deeper interior transitions that must occur in all of us if we are to become fully ourselves, and as such fully human.

There is much suffering in his work, most of it existential, and much of it brought on by that most human of instincts, resistance to change. But it is from this place of unwillingness, denial and pain that growth occurs, and it is within this process that the characters in Baumbach’s films move from one dimensional caricature to multi-dimensional human beings.

Baumbach’s protagonists are frequently difficult to love even from the relatively safe distance of the seats of a Cineplex. These are not the lovable, idiosyncratic curmudgeons or strangely eccentric “weirdoes” that we are used to being spoon-fed by mainstream Hollywood films. Instead, Baumbach gives us self-centered, cruel and emotionally stunted individuals who make their lives and the lives of those they love far more difficult than they need to be.

Yet Baumbach is able to find that thread of humanity, that redeeming force, that glimmer of hope within his characters that makes you stay with them on their journey, however unlovable they might seem. He is able, perhaps better than any other filmmaker, to find the lovability of the unlovable. It is perhaps because Baumbach understands that the root of bitterness and rage is frequently the result of nothing more than thwarted expectations. His lovably unlovable protagonists represent the misplaced idealism, and the requisite unrealistic expectations that accompany it, to which we all occasionally revert. They fully embody those thoughts, feelings and desires, those parts of us that hold ourselves and those we love to standards that are unattainable—indeed, to standards that are inhuman in their perfection.

Baumbach’s characters do not live in a bubble, and what is most powerful about his work is the exploration of the fallout that his protagonists’ behavior has on those around them. He frequently makes use of children to underscore the implications that selfish actions have on those we love. Few sequences in recent American cinema have been more uncomfortable and heartbreaking to watch than the “acting out” of Frank Berkman (Owen Kline), the younger of the two sons in “The Squid and the Whale.” Frank, an 8-year-old boy, is too young to cope with and understand the pain he feels in the aftermath of his parent’s divorce. We are forced to sit, watch and identify with him as he attempts to alleviate his hurt through self-destruction.

Frank’s scenario is at once wholly singular and wholly universal—who among us has not at least known someone (if not ourselves) who has responded to loss with self-destructive behavior? We see Frank’s behavior and we cringe, partly because it is grotesque to watch an 8-year-old drink alcohol in an attempt to numb his pain, and partly because we are very familiar with people (ourselves, family, friends) attempting to escape the horrible pain of loss by hurting themselves. We know this pain, and to see a child suffer through it only reinforces its power and our inability to “handle it” by ourselves.

But more often than not in Baumbach’s films, the children serve as surrogates for adults who are unable to fulfill their roles, as in the case of Frank’s older brother Walt (Jessie Eisenberg) in “Squid” and Margot’s son Claude (Zane Pais) in “Margot at the Wedding.” These characters provide a stability and rationality that their elders cannot. The adults provide a level of material comfort that allows for the appearance of a traditional parent/child paradigm, yet there is fluidity in the relationships, with adult agency being transferred between parent and child and back again often over the course of only a few seconds.

This adult/child fluidity is also found within singular characters, most notably the title character of “Frances Ha” and Greenberg, two characters who fluctuate between the desire for growth and the fear of the demands of adulthood. Their eventual evolution arises from their acceptance of their circumstances, as well as the acknowledgment of their own limitations. It is only when they reach this place of acceptance that they are able to move beyond their incessant navel-gazing and self-indulgence. They experience that “thing” the character Malcolm (Jack Black) in “Margot at the Wedding” describes as the realization that “you aren’t the most important person in the world.”

Like his subjects, Baumbach’s work has developed and grown. Starting with “Greenberg,” it has started to take on a more hopeful tone, and his most recent entry, “Frances Ha,” is a significant departure from the dauntingly pessimistic “Squid” and “Margot.” “Frances Ha” is almost romp-like in its representation of its 20-something heroine—a cinematic soul sister to the women of Lena Dunham’s cultural phenomenon “Girls,” minus the nihilistic heaviness. The “Ha” of the title proves to be an underlying force that carries the film along and away from the melancholic timbre of Baumbach’s earlier work.

Baumbach’s films are not on the scale either formally or thematically of some of his contemporaries, like David Fincher. They are modest in their scope and are analogous to the short stories of James Joyce in that they maximize every ounce of their force to convey meaning, while still remaining relatively “small” in breadth and duration.

These are not sagas but meditations, and from a spiritual perspective, can be seen in light of the singular sayings of the desert fathers. When a character like Ivan (Rhys Ifan), a former band mate of Greenberg’s, pleads for his friend’s understanding at his attempt to save his failing marriage with the line: “This wasn’t the life I planned on. And it’s huge to finally embrace the life you didn’t plan on,” it is cause for the reflective viewer to pause. Baumbach’s films are full of moments like this.

It goes without saying that Baumbach’s work is not escapist fare; it is discourse. He continually invites his audience to identify and question, bringing them to moments of extreme pain—which are, in a sense, his characters’ own minute passion narratives—and daring them not to care, to hurt, to be uncomfortable.

There is a saying that “change is the only constant,” and while the phrase is just as hackneyed and trite as “Hurt people hurt people,” the weight of its truth is inescapable. We live lives of transition, loss and commitment, even in what we understand to be our most static moments. We are always changing, always losing and always offering ourselves to someone or something, be it an idea, a profession, a person or a philosophy of living.

Baumbach’s films open the door to self-examination, to reflect on what we value and why we value it. In his work we see ourselves, usually at our worst, and it is from this place of self-knowledge and growth that we can begin to move toward a future of hope with strength and humility.

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