Noah Baumbach is the third genius of the comedy sophisticates — the other two, Woody Allen and Whit Stillman. These three filmmakers are the prime users of the dialogue intelligentsia, where their characters talk with the impossible wit and neuroses of a written screenplay, constantly referencing writers, philosophers, artists, and so on. The comedy then comes from the audience getting the reference, like they’re in some sort of secret club of knowledge separate from the layman. I theorize that these filmmakers get laughs because the audience wants to acknowledge that they get the joke, but really, there are rarely jokes. Instead, the comedy comes from frivolous referencing and faux superiority.
But I call them geniuses for a reason. When the work, they work. The most successful being Woody Allen, who started out with broad comedies and then moved his way into the league of “cinema sophisticates” with comedies like Manhattan and Annie Hall. Woody Allen made jokes about Gustav Mahler and Ingmar Bergman, comedy the world hadn’t seen before: a neurotic New York Jew talking about art cinema and classical music — but making it funny to everyone. He created charm with his lack of charm. He brought together the worlds of philistines and intellectuals. They could both laugh at the pretension that Allen displayed.
Allen later proved that he could do more than reference artists; he could become one with films like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, and so forth. His art matured from talking about sophistication, to actually being sophisticated.
Allen became an inspiration for future independent filmmaker Noah Baumbach, whose debut film Kicking and Screaming follows liberal art graduates who can’t seem to function when not a student. They spend their days starting book clubs, playing trivia games, and discussing David Hume. The film featured Chris Eigeman, who had already made a career playing an intellectual in Stillman’s Metropolitan. He’s the kind of guy who wears neutral colors and doesn’t drive — a Woody Allen-esque character with an immature love life and a superiority complex. This archetype became prominent in the three comedy sophisticate’s films, being played by Ben Stiller in Baumbach’s best film Greenberg, and Jeff Daniels in The Squid in the Whale. The character I’m calling the “manic intellectual” is constant in the oeuvre of the comedy sophisticates.
Most, if not all, Baumbach films are heavily rooted in his own life. Being born to two intellectuals, Jonathan Baumbach (novelist/film critic) and Georgia Brown (Village Voice critic), Baumbach spent his upbringing trying to understand the classic works of art: “I still carry the residue of the pressure I felt as a child to read and appreciate the right books. Growing up, I never allowed myself to read beach reading. I was always plowing through Ford Madox Ford’s Good Soldier or something I wasn’t equipped to understand.” This ostentatious attitude towards classic works of art comes out most in Baumbach’s worst films, notably his debut Kicking and Screaming, which is one of the worst films of the comedy sophisticates because it uses its intellectualism for nothing. Through the character’s wit and sophistication, it finds no truth. Baumbach at this early stage in his career was oblivious visually and still just as immature as his characters. The film rarely finds comedy, and when it does, it is entirely due to performance.
He would later mature with films like Frances Ha, which is Baumbach at his least biographical, following the misadventures of a prospect-less dancer, played by Greta Gerwig. It’s one of his best films because, like Allen, he ditched his sophistication, and instead proved that he was sophisticated. Frances Ha is imperfect, but an example of the cinema sophisticates working outside of the dialogue heavy obvious sophistication that made them noteworthy.
Baumbach, Allen, and Stillman created a unique form of comedy rooted in education. They popularized the manic neurotic and made humor out of Wikipedia pages. But their true art comes when they ditch this intellectualism and instead use their intelligence to create something actually sophisticated, such as Allen did in Interiors, and Baumbach in Greenberg. They’re at their best when not being sophisticated, but instead using their sophistication to create works of art.