popflick logo

Noah Baumbach: The Best Director of Neurotic Men Helps Out "Barbie"

Film Festival

By the time we published this article, "Barbie" had amassed almost 1.5 billion in worldwide ticket sales, making it the most successful movie directed by a woman in Hollywood's history. The merit rests solely on the shoulders of Greta Gerwig, who, with her fourth feature film as a director, created a unicorn: a commercial movie inspired by a toy with underground indie movie sensibility. It is a hymn to an idealized plastic woman, yet it pulls a feminist treaty for girls. An IP project deeply embedded in cinephilia.

“Barbie”’s success is a great introduction to movie fans to the work of Gerwig’s co-writer and life partner, Noah Baumbach. He is a writer-director who, since the early 90s, amassed a distinctive and resonant body of work. His movies feel like a combination of Wes Anderson and Woody Allen, but at the same time, they are their own thing.

Early Life and Career Beginnings

Noah Baumbach was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 3, 1969. His father, Jonathan Baumbach, was a man of letters: an experimental writer who founded a publishing company and taught literature in college. His mother, Georgia Brown, was a film critic for the influential alternative weekly newspaper The Village Voice and a fiction writer. The family set roots in Park Slope, in bohemian Brooklyn. Growing up in a household filled with books and movies, Baumbach developed a deep appreciation for storytelling and decided to become a filmmaker early in life. 

Growing up surrounded by art is nice, but something else marked Baumbach’s development as a person and a filmmaker. When he was a teenager, his parents separated in an acrimonious divorce. You can understand how the event affected young Noah by watching “The Squid and the Whale” (2005). The film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. It pulled no punches, exposing the family’s dirty laundry. Parents, try to behave, or your kids will grow up to become confessional movie directors!

But we are jumping ahead of ourselves. Baumbach attended Vassar College, where he studied film. During his time at Vassar, Baumbach wrote and directed his first feature film, "Kicking and Screaming" (1995) - not to be confused with the 2005 Will Ferrell soccer comedy -. The coming-of-age movie follows a group of friends who can't let go of the college lifestyle, even after graduation. The cast was full of up-and-coming talent who would make inroads in the film industry in the following years: Josh Hamilton, Eric Stoltz, Catherine Keener, Chris Eigeman, and Parker Posey, among others.

The movie was an indie hit. It got nominated for Best First Film by the New York Circle of Critics and established Baumbach as a talent to watch. The deal was sealed with his sophomore effort, “Mr. Jealousy” (1997), which reunited him with Stoltz and several cast members of his debut.

Writing for the Best

Once he established himself as a solid writer-director, Baumbach began collaborating with kindred spirits, showing he was not above writing for others. He worked with Wes Anderson on the screenplay for “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004). The movie pushed the Texan director further into choral stories packed with numerous characters.

They got along famously and soon worked together, adapting the Roald Dahl story "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009). Curiously enough, Anderson is now premiering a cycle of 4 short films based on other Dahl stories on Netflix. Why he did not release them as an anthology film in theaters is another black mark in Netflix's strategy.

Even though Baumbach and Anderson have not worked together again, they are kindred spirits. Both contemplate fraught family relationships through prickly, complicated characters. The difference is that Anderson works in a theatrical, visually elaborated style, while Baumbach goes for a more naturalistic, grounded vision. The project was also important because it showed Baumbach was not above writing to serve somebody else’s vision.

Enter Greta Gerwig

In 2010, Baumbach premiered “Greenberg,” a corrosive character study of an aimless man. The movie starred Ben Stiller as the title character and Greta Gerwig as a young woman he engages in an affair with. By then, she was an established actor in the mumblecore indie film movement, working in many films with Joe Swanberg. She co-directed their last one, “Night and Weekends” (2008). She was such a personality already that it was an event when she made a cameo in the retro marvel “The House of the Devil” (Ti West, 2009). As far as indie scary movies go, that one is a classic.

“Greenberg” opened a fruitful working relationship with Baumbach. They worked together again for “Frances Ha” (2012) and “Mistress America” (2015). In those two projects, Gerwig became an active participant in the writing process, all the way to sharing screenwriting credit with the director.

HBO hired Baumbach to write, direct, and adapt Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” between those two indie movies. It was a perfect fit for the prestige network. The novel, published in 2001, was a bestseller. It also won the National Book Award. For all its praise, Franzen turned into a pop culture villain when he showed little interest, if not disdain when Oprah Winfrey announced the novel for her Book Club. Gerwig joined a stellar cast that included Chris Cooper, Diane Weist, Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Rhys Ifans. Alas, the suits passed on the pilot episode, and the series never happened. The title now languishes in the director’s filmography as a TV Movie. I think the Golden Age of Television dropped the ball there. I would pay good money to see that.

Eventually, Baumbach and Gerwig’s relationship changed from professional to romantic. He divorced his first wife, actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh, with whom he procreated one child. He now has two children with Gerwig.

A Creative Marriage of Equals

Eventually, Gerwig circled back to directing and, with an astonishing couple of films, became one of the most celebrated American female directors of our time. “Lady Bird” (2017), a coming-of-age story starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, was an indie hit and earned 5 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It went empty-handed but gained Gerwig enough clout to push forward in her dream project, a new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel “Little Women.”

Did we need a new “Little Women”? Countless adaptations worldwide include the classic 1933 film directed by George Cukor, an early hit for Katherine Hepburn. Gen-Xrs still had the 1994 Gilliam Armstrong version in their memory, with Winona Ryder starring at the peak of her career. So, the answer is no, but Gerwig gave us a beautiful adaptation that made the story fresh. It also digs into the feminist roots of the text in a way that melds gracefully modern sensibilities and a persuasive version of the past. The Academy agreed and lavished the movie with 6 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Gerwig. It took the prize for Best Costume Design.

In the meantime, Baumbach branched out into documentaries with "De Palma" (2015), a loving portrait of legendary cult classic movies' director Brian De Palma. No stranger to film festivals, he opened the comedy "The Meyerowitz Stories" (2017) at Cannes, where it competed for the Palme d'Or. Then came the ruthless end-of-a-relationship drama "Marriage Story" (2019), which many interpret as auto-biographical. The movie got six Oscar nominations. Laura Dern won Best Supporting Actress for her role as a formidable divorce lawyer. His follow-up, an adaptation of Don Delillo's classic novel "White Noise" (2022), brought Gerwig back in front of the camera. The movie was a Netflix original. The streamer's usual disregard for appropriate theatrical runs made the film disappear in award season.

Baumbach and Gerwig are each distinctive artists, but they share their preoccupation with flawed characters struggling to come to terms with themselves, the family dynamics that make people who they are, and the social mores that define the confines of life. Still, each one has a distinctive personal style.

The Barbie Phenomenon

When news came around that Gerwig would write and direct a “Barbie” movie for Mattel, any movie buff worth their salt watched with dismay the news. It sounded like Gerwig renounced everything that made her work special for a surefire commercial hit. Like Tim Burton doing those awful Disney live-action adaptations of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dumbo.”

The project started development with Amy Schumer attached to it, but that version went nowhere. Gerwig set out to work on a script with Baumbach. Margot Robbie agreed to produce and star in the film. It felt like a strange fit for Gerwig and even more so for Baumbach. Still, you can find the seeds of “Barbie” in “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” particularly in the warmth with which they contemplate the plight of young women finding themselves and struggling to carve their place in the world.

Undoubtedly, Gerwig was the main creative force behind "Barbie." Like "Lady Bird" and "Little Women," it is wise to observe how women juggle their desires and the world's expectations. Robbie's Barbie is a soul sister to teen girl Lady Bird and wilful writer Jo March, except she starts her self-awareness trip at a more primitive point. She is a plastic doll, after all.

It's Mr. Gerwig, now!: Greta and Noah Baumbach at the 2020 Golden Globes Awards / Photo by© Featureflash, courtesy of
Dreamstime

It's Mr. Gerwig, now!: Greta and Noah Baumbach at the 2020 Golden Globes Awards / Photo by© Featureflash, courtesy of Dreamstime

Another sign that the movie belongs to Gerwig lies in its ability to call back to classic cinema, going beyond the commercial demands of plundering the Mattel catalog of products; she is an actual movie buff, known for haunting the Art House theaters of New York like any other film man. This is a piece of trivia that we treasure. We like to think actors love movies, but that might not happen. We are still doing the facepalm, remembering that Tom Holland has no idea who Pedro Almodovar is.

Many critics, and Gergwig herself, have identified the influence of “Barbie” on films like “Singin’ In The Rain” (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952), “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (Jacques Demy, 1964), “Playtime” (Jacques Tati, 1967), “The Truman Show” (Peter Weir, 1998) and many other. Mattel did not know they were signing up a film festival programmer. If only they used a fraction of the box-office bounty to fund a roadshow film festival that could introduce “Barbie” fans worldwide to its sources of inspiration.

It's hard to tell what Noah Baumbach brought to "Barbie." His filmography has nothing as cartoonish, although his dark humor can sometimes veer into fizziness. He has a deft hand with unexpected off-hand jokes and background flourishes. "The Meyerowitz Stories" scores a laugh-out-loud moment when Emma Thompson, as Dustin Hoffman's hippy, drunk ex-wife, crashes her car against a tree. Amid the acrimonious divorce in "Marriage Story," Adam Driver's wall-breaking tantrum became an online meme for good reasons. We might speculate that all his experience mining the insecurities of male characters helped delineate the character arc of Ken (Ryan Gosling). Still, perhaps this is an easy assumption to make. We can only be sure that Gerwig and Baumbach pulled off quite a feat as co-writers.

Life After “Barbie”

Gerwig has remained silent about life after Barbie. If you dig deep into her IMDB page, you will only find one upcoming project: her script for Marc Webb’s live-action adaptation of Disney’s animated classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” with Rachel Zegler and Gal Gadot. She adapted the 1937 original script with Erin Cressida Wilson.

Baumbach’s IMDB is blank after “White Noise.” Some online outlets have reported Netflix greenlighted a comedy he will direct with Adam Sandler and Brad Pitt. It sounds promising, considering he gave Sandler one of his best roles in “The Meyerowitz Stories.”

But don’t despair, “Barbie” fans. Track down Baumbach and Gerwig’s past movies, and find out how the sensibilities that gave you the most pleasurable summer movie took shape. The trip might take you down some dark paths, but trust is, it is worth it.

Movie poster

Watch “House on Haunted Hill

A millionaire offers $10,000 to five people to spend the night in a large, spooky rented house with him and his wife.

Stream Now

Want to get an email when we publish new content?

Subscribe today