As the Stephen Sondheim musical Company nears its finale, the main character, Bobby, faces one terrifying question: “What do you get?” The New York bachelor, who has been bouncing along from scene to scene and from one couple of married friends to the next, has been simmering throughout its duration. In those scenes, he tries to grasp onto some semblance of stability while refusing to confront a real sense of maturation or adulthood. His older friend Joanne knows his game. He tries to waste time, avoiding the subject. Connected to no one, he still exists in relation to other people. She hisses at him, “Don’t do that folksy thing with me.” He unleashes all of his rage, fear, sadness, hope, and desperation in one song. He looks at all of his friends and their marriages and relationships, and looks at all the people he has dated, and he looks at the rest of New York. All alone on stage, isolated by towering scaffolding that dwarfs Bobby, he asks again. “And what do you get for it? What do you get?”
Noah Baumbach has been asking the same question throughout his career as a filmmaker. From the Gen-Xers of his debut Kicking and Screaming to the millennials across the generational bracket in Mistress America, Baumbach’s characters are plagued, not by their ambitions but by their paranoia of what they could lose, and if it’s all worth it. His characters are terrified, but Baumbach covers his characters’ fears in caustic humor, near-lethal bon mots both savvy and overcompensatory (There can be nothing worse than realizing that the answer to “What do you get?” might be “nothing”.) Their obstinacy is a shield, their arrested development a self-imposed, completely delusional safe haven from the dangers of a real world filled with failure, heartbreak, and disappointment. In Baumbach’s most recent film, Marriage Story, he makes his connection to Company explicit, giving the film’s emotional climax to Adam Driver singing the musical’s final number, “Being Alive,” in which Bobby confronts his fears and desires, what he could be, and what he is. It’s as if the musical’s ghost haunts him: the question Baumbach been obsessed with for over thirty years has not yielded the answer he thinks he wants.
Originally produced and directed by Hal Prince in 1970, Company was a cherry bomb in the theatre world, a sly piece of work that, in spite of its abstraction (no plot, but framed around Bobby’s 35th birthday party) challenged its upper middle class audience into reconciling with their own existential angst in a hyper-industrialized city. Company’s fixation with, among other things, the liminal space between adolescence and adulthood, and the question of whether our struggle to progress is for ourselves or for the sake of other people, is indeed nightmarish. Bobby is always watching, simultaneously yearning for and disgusted by what he sees. His friends are in varying states of monogamous bliss (or ambivalence); does he want that? Or does he want to continue riding the Merry-Go-Round of the New York dating scene? Or something else entirely?
The inclusion of “Being Alive” in Marriage Story is hardly incidental. In a recent interview, Baumbach said, “Adam said in passing to me something like, ‘Do you think there would be a movie of Company? What would that be like?’ We kind of tossed that idea around. While we were doing it, I was listening to the soundtrack a lot. I kept thinking, I’d just love to have Adam sing ‘Being Alive.' It was a task I set for myself in the writing: How could I justify Adam singing this song? Then I thought, Well, of course, Scarlett should have the song with her mom and her sister. [They perform "You Could Drive a Person Crazy.'] I mean, I think it says so much about their history together.” Given that Baumbach’s characters have always feared intimacy and adulthood, how could it not be Company? Baumbach has been teasing out and playing with his own version of the show the whole time. The same anxious feeling of alienation from oneself that imbues Bobby hungrily dogs Baumbach’s characters.
His characters act out in dread: being an adult is not only painful but has lasting emotional consequences fills them with anxiety and apprehension. The boys in The Squid and the Whale, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Owen (Frank Berkman), are forced to grow up fast when their parents split up. In response, Walt pretends to have written a Pink Floyd song, anxious about the idea of genius his academic father (Jeff Bridges) taught him. In his bottomless loneliness, Owen starts drinking and masturbates in the school library. In Margot at the Wedding, it’s easier for successful novelist Margot (Nicole Kidman) to clash with her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and show off her haughtiness, than it is to examine why she’s so willing to sacrifice familial intimacy, pilfering from her family’s life for her fiction, in favor of professional security. Intimacy, both familial and romantic, is what’s at stake for Baumbach’s characters; some prefer forgo it altogether rather than have it and lose it. After Roger (Ben Stiller) and Florence (Greta Gerwig) have sex in Greenberg, prickly Roger’s tantrum is not so much aimed at her, but himself. He, too, has fallen in love, but love is much too big a risk for him, because he knows he’ll come out looking like a man-child. In the cinematic landscape of Noah Baumbach’s films, the ability to foster intimacy and love, even at the risk of losing them, are signs of adulthood, maturity, and growth. Ultimately, it’s easier for his characters to not try. You can’t be sorry about what you don’t have and have never lost. This mantra of woundedness calcifies their hearts like resin.
The illusion of secure, mature relationships is transient, like the friendship between older married couple Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and hipster youth avatars Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) in While We're Young. Real closeness is raw, burning, and as painful as it is pleasurable, but the only thing either couple can do is affect closeness. Closeness is a costume and performance of funny hats and fake secrets divulged at posh Bushwick restaurants. They never really know each other. Conversely, in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Danny (Adam Sandler) has sought out that familiarity from his brother Matthew (Stiller) and father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) for years, in spite of the complicated history he has with his family. He knows what he wants, but he’s left chasing after an idealized dynamic that may never exist. He’s not unlike “Baby” Tracy (Lola Kirke) in Mistress America, a college freshman who watches Brooke (Gerwig), the person she wants to feel closest to, be stuck, ailing, unable to “make herself work in the world.” More than many of Baumbach’s characters, Danny and Tracy know what they want, but they lack the vocabulary to articulate that to other people. The tension is in trying to make the people around them understand. Tracy pushes Brooke to the ends of the Earth—I mean Connecticut—to help her become the most generous person she knows how to be, even though Brooke, unwieldy and unrealistic, will keep pushing people away.
Though his characters remain developmentally immobile, Baumbach’s observations have become sharper. His eye is less jaundiced, his touch is a little more tender, and his ability to pinpoint his characters’ personal, emotional, psychological, and social shackles is both more precise and more generous. In a way, Baumbach’s artistic maturation has made him better at portraying people unable or unwilling to mature. As Miami (Parker Posey) and Skippy (Jason Wiles) breakup in Kicking and Screaming, a quick jab of “I begged you to not go off Prozac” drips with misanthropy and angst, but, though it’s clever, it’s childish in its lack of depth. Compare that to when, in Frances Ha, Frances (Gerwig) corners her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) in the bathroom and, as they breakup in their own way, launches into a ferocious tirade: “Sophie, I fucking held your head while you cried! I bought special milk for you. I know where you hide your pills. Don’t treat me like a three-hour brunch friend!” The attack is infantile, but it comes from such a specific feeling of personal betrayal, making Frances’ aggressive slam on the wall both unhinged and sympathetic.
This precedes one of my favorite scenes in a Noah Baumbach movie. Frances has recklessly decided to take a trip to Paris. Tortured by jet lag and irked by her expat friend not responding to her calls, she finds herself at a cafe, hunched over a chunk of bread as deflated as her morale. She’s not the dancer she thought she would be, and although there’s hope yet—a meeting with the director of the dance company—she has ambled around New York somewhat aimlessly in the wake of her split from Sophie. Paris feels as lonely as New York, but it has a compounded sense of unfamiliarity. Her phone rings. It’s Sophie, whom you can tell she’s thought of—and has caught herself thinking of—for every moment of this film. Who is she without Sophie? Sophie finally reveals that she and her boyfriend are moving to Japan, and the awkwardness of their rapport slowly begins to dissipate. But there’s one last thing Frances has to say to Sophie before they hang up: “I’m going to say something but I’m going to hang up right after because I don’t want you to feel obligated to say something back. IloveyouSophiebye.” She quickly hangs up. Their relationship is drawn with such specificity and certainty; it evolves and matures fully, the thoroughness of its trajectory almost an anomaly in Baumbach’s oeuvre. They sparkle, on the screen and across the room from one another, in Baumbach’s painterly black and white. I’d lose myself, too, if I’d had someone like Sophie to lose myself in. And perhaps there is comfort in being lost in those liminal spaces, knowing you’re not the only one who’s making a mess of adulthood and intimacy, unable to make either work.
Frances is afraid, but she doesn't let fear stop her completely. During their brief reconnection, Sophie and Frances lie in bed beside one another, making plans for their future. When Sophie slinks out in the morning, Frances wakes up and chases after her. Frances screams with everything inside of her, “SOPHIE! SOPHIE! SOPHIE!” It’s a declaration of love, loss, pain, and joy all at once. Frances has grown up enough to do that. But Bobby could never purge himself and confront that fear of intimacy and loss. Could he ever chase after someone? In Company, Bobby watches the world pass him by. His friends get married, or get divorced, or sort out their various marital issues, and his girlfriends move on with their lives, too. He creates fanciful dreams of perfect arrangements and a faultless self, but they’re detached from honesty. His nightmare might be to become like Charlie (Driver) in Marriage Story, someone who became an adult, found something to live for, and risked it all anyways. Bobby wouldn’t be able to do that.
Baumbach also knows that, for the stuck and scared, there’s a paradoxical solace in watching other stuck, scared people reveal themselves, make themselves vulnerable, and confront those fears. Disillusionment scorches the soul, but it also makes one feel more alive. Perhaps it’s in Marriage Story that Baumbach has best captured this central idea in his work, culminating in one scene. After a brutal and draining divorce process from his wife and actor collaborator Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in Los Angeles, New York theatre director Charlie finds himself back in New York with friends. The pianist at the restaurant plays “Being Alive”, and Charlie begins singing. But he sings all the parts, not just the main lyrics for Bobby. He even does the speaking parts—Bobby’s friends egging him on, pushing him towards self-realization: “Is that all you think there is?” “You’re not a kid anymore, Robby. I don’t think you’ll ever be a kid again, kiddo!” “Want something. Want something.” Everything has led to this, for Bobby, for Charlie, and for Baumbach.
Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody make me come through
I'll always be there
As frightened as you
To help us survive
Being alive, being alive, being alive
Driver, alone on the stage and with Baumbach’s camera never cutting, sings to his friends, to his ex-wife, to son, to himself, to the past, to the future, to the person he once was, to the person who he may become, to the person he wishes he could be, if he could only grow up.