Rent: 2 Films By Lightning Rod Noah Baumbach


Focus Features

Who knew a film about doing nothing could be such a lightning rod? Noah Baumbach's fifth feature as a director, Greenberg, opens in New York and Los Angeles today, but it was preceded by a bit of an online dustup. Baumbach is best known at this point for 2005's The Squid and the Whale, an uncomfortably funny film about children coping with divorce, but this squabble among critics came to involve perhaps his least-remembered film, 1997's Mr. Jealousy.

This is very old news, especially by the standards of the Internet, but to recap briefly: An anonymous e-mail circulated at the beginning of last week claiming that Armond White, ruthless contrarian, current chairman of the New York Critic Film Critics Circle and critic for the New York Press, had been disinvited from a press screening of Greenberg at the personal request of Baumbach and producer Scott Rudin. A publicist eventually took responsibility for barring White, saying the critic had a history of making personal attacks against Baumbach, including saying that "his parents should have aborted him." There was a rallying cry for critics to show solidarity with White by boycotting films from Rudin and Focus Features.

Some speculated the abortion remark was apocryphal, until the Village Voice's J. Hoberman published White's June 1998 review of Mr. Jealousy, which is not archived online: "I won't comment on Baumbach's deliberate, onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother [former Voice critic Georgia Brown] except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion." Not quite the literal statement the publicist attributed to White, or that Hoberman promised with his headline, "Proof That Critic Armond White Did Call for Noah Baumbach's Abortion." Passions were aroused; comment threads flourished.

White was eventually invited to a screening of Greenberg, and his "review" appeared Wednesday. I was sort of hoping, given his proudly defiant opinions, that White might end up loving the film, but he didn't. His piece on the film, though, is mostly an alarmist rant claiming Hoberman and his "minions in the Internet world" have defected to the dark side of the publicists ("the Hobermanbots fear lively critical dialogue; they all want control"). The article culminates quite shockingly with White casting the feud as a "racist lynching"—White is black, Hoberman white—and anticipating "reprisals for the freedom of speech expressed in this article." (In his short response, Hoberman doesn't respond directly to White's accusations of cronyism, choosing instead to deflate his hyperbole.)

That's probably enough New York-film-critic scandalmongering for the rest of the year. But for me at least, this back-and-forth also called some attention to the Woody Allen-inflected youthful uncertainties of Baumbach's first two films, both available on DVD. His last two, The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, have been much more family-focused.

The first sentence of White's Mr. Jealousy review contains a rather glaring error (a man uses the word "disfluency," but it is to describe his girlfriend's stutter, not his own), and its detour into the personal is startling regardless of what you make of the "retroactive abortion" remark. But he is not so off base about the overall quality of Mr. Jealousy. The film is ludicrous, and not in a good way—a group-therapy screwball comedy set in a Seinfeldian New York where the closest friends are always the ones with the quirkiest diner-booth banter. The lead role of Lester Grimm, a substitute teacher and aspiring writer, requires Eric Stoltz to exhibit both pathologically jealous behavior and the perpetually even keel of a likable protagonist, something the actor is, not surprisingly, unable to do.

Still, the film has its minor charms. As ever, Baumbach makes countless references to art, literature, and other films. We see a movie-theater marquee announcing The Rules of the Game, Sunrise, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, also an important plot point. The female lead (Annabella Sciorra) lectures in front of a Francis Bacon canvas. And a famous writer named Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman) claims he smokes the same type of cigars Beckett did. Here these constant allusions come off not as show-offy or as cheap ways for Baumbach to elevate his own material but as endearingly awkward expressions of genuine enthusiasms.

But better to watch Baumbach's too-often-overlooked debut, Kicking and Screaming (1995). The film focuses on a group of sport-coated friends in limbo between college and real life. They've stayed on after graduation in the college town of Munton, where they try to distance themselves from campus life while still sheepishly frequenting old haunts and undergraduate parties. The heart of the comedy, gradually fleshed out in a number of flashback scenes, is the uncertain status of the relationship between Grover (Josh Hamilton) and Jane (Olivia d'Abo), who has moved to Prague.

The dialogue is the most remarkable thing about the film. Through a common syncopated rhythm of talking, and exchanges dense with trivia, Baumbach and his actors create a believable network of male friendships. Enough cringes are induced in Kicking and Screaming to make it a recognizable precursor to Baumbach's more recent films, but it also has moments of real warmth—something that appears to be in shorter supply these days among the New York critical establishment.