I was prompted to see the movie after reading a long thread of mostly negative reactions on Facebook. Many of the comments faulted Noah Baumbach for writing about his own experience because it was the experience of a straight white male raised with financial and cultural advantages. The gist of the remarks was: We’re tired of your world, we’ve heard enough from your side of things, stop looking at yourself, use your imagination and do something else but whatever you do don’t write about experience that isn’t yours, either. Don’t be a narcissist on one hand. Don’t be an appropriator on the other. Just, shut up and go away.
I don’t believe these are fair or useful ways to speak to artists about their work. These are not the right categories to go after people with.
I didn’t enjoy the film, and I don’t think it’s good. It felt false from beginning to end and like a piece of self-congratulation on the part of the director/writer for giving the female character her due. He doesn’t. Her position is witless and makes no sense within the terms of the breakup and as a result makes everything she says about feeling pushed around and used sound like a sudden tantrum, a spurt of #MeToo juice directed at her husband, who hasn’t really done anything. Baumbach allows that the husband has had a small, meaningless affair with a member of his company, but in a screaming fight justifies this by saying the male character and his wife didn’t have sex for a year.
There is a giant, missing elephant in the picture: in reality Baumbach started a relationship with Greta Gerwig while he was still married to Jennifer Jason Leigh. To the degree that the wife character, played by Scarlett Johansson, represents Leigh’s plight, she would have had reason to leave New York and return to LA because her husband was no longer with her. Without this provocation, the husband character, played by Adam Driver, looks like a man who woke up one day to find his wife and son missing. We’re supposed to feel sympathy for him throughout: poor guy has an irrational wife who suddenly dissents about everything he thought she liked; poor guy has to negotiate a divorce with shark lawyers in California; poor guy has to jeopardize his great chance at a Broadway production (Broadway??? is good??? to an avant-garde director??? with a Macarthur????) in order to visit his son across the country. Poor guy has to hear the rhetoric of the dominated woman who has not been coerced into anything, and we are supposed to understand why he is rolling his eyes. The movie is saying: What do women want? What do women want? They’re so mysterious and confusing. I thought you liked that. You mean all those years you were faking it? Poor guy.
The story is the husband’s and what kind of story is it? It’s a victim story. He is the one who is done to. Victim stories don’t work unless the person begins to wonder how they came to be so easily beguiled, what was in it for them to believe situation A was really situation B? The Driver character asks none of these questions. Even if he did, they aren’t relevant to why the marriage came apart. It came apart because the man fell in love with someone else. These things happen. It’s not a crime. The question is: In what ways has anything happened to you you can channel into your art so it is rich with complexity and has a chance of moving people because complexity is what moves us, complexity and contradictions that can’t be resolved.