It’s Woody Allen’s Fault
Noah Baumbach’s new Frances Ha shows the fate of a generation enamored of the nebbishy narcissist
Frances Ha, the latest film from writer-director Noah Baumbach, is shot in gorgeous black-and-white, with a score by French New Wave composer Georges Delerue, against which a neurotic young artist in New York channels her deepest insecurities into nebbishy monologues. Baumbach’s current squeeze Greta Gerwig co-wrote the script and stars in the film, and her performance blends the emotional delicacy of Mia Farrow with the daffy, la-dee-da spontaneity of Diane Keaton.
If this sounds like a Woody Allen film, it’s because there’s more than a little Allen in Baumbach. But Baumbach isn’t out to emulate his predecessor; he wants to decimate him.
The implicit promise of a Woody Allen film is that, if you are a well-read, culturally astute member of the creative profession with a decent grasp of rhetoric, there will be a captive audience for your airing of grievances. It’s a promise that has inspired legions of admirers among the intelligentsia, as well as its fair share of dissidents. (Joan Didion is among the most prominent of the latter: She delivered a broadside against Allen’s work in a 1979 article in the New York Review of Books, ringing the alarm bells on characters she saw as “acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life” with a “peculiar and hermetic self-regard.”) Baumbach, 43, seems similarly influenced: He came into adolescence during Allen’s golden age in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the era of Manhattan, Annie Hall, and Stardust Memories—the films from which Baumbach’s latest movie borrows much of its casing.
But there’s a key difference between Alvy Singer’s hermetic self-regard and Frances’. For all the other flaws they exhibited, Allen’s alter egos were sought-after for their wry and insightful witticisms. Indeed, their thoughts were so prized and universally loved that the protagonists were tasked with speaking engagements (Annie Hall) and weekends with adoring fans (Stardust Memories), which they came to dread. In Frances Ha, few have the patience for the modern dancer’s musings—an acquaintance rejects her childlike attempts at humor, her best friend seethes quietly through a drunken tantrum, and the hosts of a dinner party she attends can barely stomach her loopy monologues on the true meaning of connection. Frances’ conversational partners often carry the vague, shifty air of people who are hoping that no one sees them talking to her.
The lack of interest that Frances’ contemporaries show in her stems from a great number of things: She’s homeless, unemployed, and perpetually broke; she’s emotionally stunted; she falls on the pavement while running to an ATM mid-date and fails to notice her open wound until her date points it out. Oddly for a dancer, she seems barely aware of the ground underneath her own feet. But her chief folly seems to be that she bought into Allen’s promise of redemption through existential attitude. She fantasizes about one day “taking over the world” armed with honorary degrees; she thinks she can achieve artistic heights by living inside his bubble.
In fact, Frances looks relatively well-adjusted when compared to the leads of Baumbach’s other movies. His work is full of intellectuals who seem to have picked up bad habits from good films: They are either sociopaths (Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding), sad sacks (Kicking and Screaming), or tormented by psychological hang-ups (Mr. Jealousy). Sometimes they are all of the above. The hermetic self-regard of these characters is pushed to 11: They’re incapable of detecting when their company is not wanted. Whereas Allen’s characters usually start at the top, Baumbach’s rarely, if ever, find professional success. Yet they presume to possess worldliness, and name-drop critiques of books they haven’t read alongside thoughts on places they’ve never visited—taking their cues from Allen’s promise that they will be heard, though they don’t have much to say. As the lead character in Greenberg (2010), played by Ben Stiller, explains, “A shrink said to me once that I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because I felt like I never really lived it in the first place.”
Greenberg’s vision of the past is a notably incomplete one; he ignores the fact that the Jewish neurotic way of life was pulled out of the realm of self-seriousness more than a decade ago, by the most popular sitcom on TV. Jerry Seinfeld, telegraphing his every concern not only to the invented world of his program but also to a live studio audience primed for laughter, is the inflection point between Allen and Baumbach. Seinfeld elevated each petty dilemma (stolen vending machine candy, stuck in the queue at a Chinese restaurant) to the level of full-blown histrionics, exposing with good humor the kind of rote and inconsequential territory the Jewish intellectual’s mind often wanders into. (His schlemiel partner-in-crime Larry David pushes the conceit even further on Curb Your Enthusiasm, doubling down on Allen’s narcissism but trading in the fantasy world of support for a bubbling stew of negative energy from supporting players.) Baumbach’s characters, by appropriating Allen’s worries without Seinfeld’s goofy grin, are making themselves out to be purists of persnicketiness, pretending their own personal Show About Nothing is more than just that.
A Baumbach picture is as relentless as an action flick when it comes to depicting its pervasive air of social unease: He never lets you forget how uncomfortable it is to listen to someone deliver a reference-laced monologue in everyday conversation. Like Allen, Baumbach undergoes therapy, and also like Allen, he jumped from one actress-muse romantic partner (ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, who starred in Margot at the Wedding) to another (Gerwig, whom he first cast in Greenberg). But unlike Allen—the college-dropout son of an engraver and a bookkeeper—Baumbach grew up in a proudly intellectual family. His novelist/scholar father Jonathan Baumbach (who is Jewish) and film-critic mother Georgia Brown (who is Protestant) apparently love high culture but hate each other (at least as depicted in Squid). There’s a note of irony that the filmmaker with the working-class upbringing should be the one to envision a world where clinically depressed intellectuals are revered, while the one nurtured by intellectuals prefers a world where well-read malcontents are pariahs.
Why does Baumbach enjoy subverting Allen’s utopia of Jewish slapstick iconoclasm? In some respects, Baumbach is just setting the world right again: Logically, we should feel repulsed by the Woody Allen archetype, even though we don’t (whether we should feel repulsed by the real-life Allen’s behavior is a different debate). Just look at how his own scripts describe him: “He was given to fits of rage, Jewish liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, and nihilistic moods of despair,” his Manhattan ex-wife (Meryl Streep) declares. “He had complaints about life but never any solutions. He longed to be an artist, but balked at the necessary sacrifices.”
The willingness to make sacrifices should be an essential trait in any sympathetic protagonist, so the fact that we let this slide with Allen (who, unlike Seinfeld or David, we’re unquestionably meant to root for) is worth pondering. We buy into Allen’s balking state of mind because he surrounds himself with people who buy into it as well, and it comforts us that a man who indulges in so many of his worst impulses could also be so smart, successful, sensitive and witty. When Allen says that his masturbation is “sex with someone I love,” it’s an admission of his intense narcissism—but it’s also funny, and he invites us to laugh, and so we laugh.
Baumbach strips that cushion away. His heroes do nothing but balk at necessary sacrifices. Greenberg turned down a shot at music stardom in his 20s and now spends his days ranting at the wind. In Squid, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) humiliates himself at a school talent show by passing off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own song, insisting, “I could have written it.” For her part, Frances refuses to accept the fact that her best friend and only support system (Mickey Sumner) is drifting away from her, insisting to anyone who will listen, “Her and I are the same person but with different hair.”
What interests Baumbach is the spiritual poison that comes with trying to float through life in a state of suspended maturity. His characters believe in Allen’s self-serving promise, in the idea that one can read and sigh and kvetch all day and still find close approximations of happiness and success. But unlike Allen’s, Seinfeld’s, or David’s characters, they haven’t earned anything: They didn’t fight tooth and nail to get to where they are, and they are more likely than not to squander the opportunities available to them—as when Frances scores a Paris loft for a weekend but sleeps through her entire stay.
In recent years Allen has retreated, becoming a citizen of the world rather than solely of his own head. Still, his anachronistic promise of pontificating-to-riches is still intact: It can be seen in his 2011 megahit Midnight in Paris, when whiny time-traveling novelist Owen Wilson, counting Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein among his support group, couldn’t fathom a fate worse than penning screenplays. Allen’s most recent film, To Rome With Love, even had a thankless supporting part for Gerwig as the too-good girlfriend of her fellow Baumbach-movie alum Eisenberg. Her cheery blandness gives her neurotic partner leeway to satisfy his romantic urges with another woman, which is how relationships tend to fall apart in Allen’s films.
Meanwhile, Frances will dance through the streets of New York, young and bursting with a wealth of thoughts but no clue. She’s another wandering member of Noah Baumbach’s Lost Tribe, in search of a hermetically sealed fantasyland that was promised to her by the pied piper of Manhattan.
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