All happy couples are alike; each couple in a Noah Baumbach movie is unhappy in their own way. I recently rewatched all of his films in a very short time frame — a choice I’ll only understand the true repercussions of once I approach death and look back on my life as a linear narrative — and was struck by the fact that almost every single one of his cinematic couplings is made up of neurotic New Yorkers whose various negative fixations and overdeveloped intellects prevent them from making lasting romantic connections.
Each couple falls into one of three categories: They secretly or openly hate each other; they secretly or openly hate themselves; they secretly or openly yearn for an entirely different life than the one they have. Sometimes, one half of the couple is an artist who’s failed to meet their own expectations, and unleashes their creative frustration on their lover. Sometimes one feels like they’re too good for the other, and sometimes both think they’re slumming. Oftentimes, they break up, and yet still manage to infuriate each other from afar. In many cases, a sharp distaste for the concept of Los Angeles is the only thing keeping the couple together. Either way, nearly everyone in Baumbach’s filmic repertoire is freaking miserable.
I don’t want to speculate here as to why Baumbach — whom I love, both on a cinematic and neurotic-Jewish level — thinks most romantic relationships are doomed (but I absolutely will speculate about it with you in person the next time I see you). That’s not the point of this piece. The point is that we must figure out which of his onscreen couples is the most miserable. Below is an attempt to do just that. A few caveats: For the purposes of this list, the definition of a “couple” is two people who are romantically involved for more than a single date, sexual encounter, or scene. They must also appear together onscreen (a handful of Baumbach’s couplings are phone-only or referred to obliquely). The list is comprised only of straight couples because there is not one single gay couple in a Noah Baumbach movie, save for the “charming interracial homosexuals” who purchase Harold Meyerowitz’s house and give all of his art away to retirement homes in The Meyerowitz Stories.
24. Eliza and Robin (Grace Van Patten and Justin Winley), The Meyerowitz Stories
Eliza and Robin, the youngest and happiest couple Baumbach has ever written, have approximately zero issues. Granted, they’re 18, but still. Appearing in only a smattering of scenes together, the two college kids appear to have a genuine connection built on mutual hotness and general affability. As the narrator of the film puts it, “Eliza liked kissing Robin the best, even more than Marcus.” Eliza is clearly the more compelling half of the couple, the sort of young artiste who makes films in which she appears nude and has sex with herself, but Robin seems proud and not threatened by her fledgling avant-garde artistry. At the end of the film, he quietly accompanies her to the bowels of the Guggenheim to find her grandfather’s old artwork. And when he meets her father, he simply and very sweetly says, “Eliza speaks highly of you.”
Most Miserable Moment: N/A
Least Miserable Moment: When Robin adorably cuts Eliza’s hair, then offers to do the same for her aunt.
Overall Misery Level: Totally nonexistent
23. Joan and Ivan (Laura Linney and William Baldwin), The Squid and the Whale
One of the only functional couples in Baumbach’s repertoire: Laura Linney and William Baldwin, playing a writer and her son’s tennis instructor, respectively. Ivan is a sweet dummy who calls everyone “brother” and Joan is fresh off a horrendous divorce, and somehow, it all makes a twisted sort of sense. They take a happy little trip to Maine. He attends her other, shittier son’s talent show. She publishes a novel. He accompanies her terrible ex-husband Bernard into an ambulance. “Why is your mother dating all these jocks? Very uninteresting men,” asks Bernard midway through the film. Perhaps because it’s much less stressful, in a Baumbach film and maybe in real life, to date an uncomplicated jock than a self-sabotaging pseudo-intellectual.
Most Miserable Moment: When Joan’s son Frank asks Ivan if they’re both “philistines.”
Least Miserable Moment: When it is implied that Ivan and Joan have sex at her book party.
Overall Misery Level: A denim vest on a spring day in New York
22. Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz), While We’re Young
The further along Baumbach got in his career, the happier his supporting couples became. Marina and Fletcher, best friends of protagonists Cornelia and Josh, seem to have it all figured out. They’ve just had a baby; he’s gotten a tattoo of the sonogram, and he’s not even mad that it’s infected with staph. “It’s a love I’ve never felt,” she explains to Cornelia of her child. “Don’t take that the wrong way,” she adds to Fletcher. He nods. “Oh, no, I know exactly what you mean.” He takes time off so Cornelia can go back to work, and he handles the 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. feedings. Is Noah Baumbach … getting happier, too?
Most Miserable Moment: When Cornelia and Josh show up to Marina and Fletcher’s house and realize they’re throwing a party and didn’t invite them.
Least Miserable Moment: Literally everything else they do.
Overall Misery Level: Brief, curable staph infection
21. Cornelia and Josh (Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller), While We’re Young
Cornelia and Josh are one of the first truly content couples Baumbach ever wrote. They’ve fallen into an easy pattern of takeout, wine, and staring at their phones next to each other in bed. They could go to Europe anytime, but they don’t. When they fall in with youthful weirdos Jamie and Darby, their relationship flies off course — suddenly, they’re vomiting and making out with 25-year-olds at ayahuasca ceremonies (“Maybe don’t flirt with the shaman?”), taking hip-hop classes, arguing in the street, and wondering whether or not they should’ve had a child. “I don’t want this to be every time you take a hallucinogen, you want a baby,” says Cornelia. “Not every time,” says Josh. Eventually, they right the ship, with Josh admitting he’s been acting like a man-child. “If we were different people I’d ask you to renew our vows,” he tells Cornelia, before they decide to adopt a baby. “Maybe we are different people.”
Most Miserable Moment: “I wish you’d look at me the way you look at Jamie and Darby,” says Cornelia.
Least Miserable Moment: “For the first time, I feel like I’m not a child imitating an adult.” “You feel that way, too?”
Overall Misery Level: Conquerable midlife crisis
20. Harold and Maureen (Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson), The Meyerowitz Stories
Maureen is an alcoholic hippie, and Harold is a persnickety artist past his prime who attempts to bribe her into sobriety — a dynamic that keeps both of them relatively happy. In the film’s first scene, they’re screaming at each other from separate floors of an East Village brownstone without malice. “Did you leave the front door open?” asks Harold. “For the ConEd guy,” says Maureen. “That was three days ago!” shrieks Harold. Maureen refers obliquely to “old lovers” like Willem Dafoe, crashes cars into trees, and sells Harold’s life’s work while he’s in a medically induced coma, but Harold seems to have no real issue with any of it. He’s miserable on his own, storming out of art galleries and fixating on a four-second interaction with Sigourney Weaver, but perhaps 10 percent less miserable in her presence.
Most Miserable Moment: When Maureen is “mauled by a buck,” or “maybe it was a big dog or a small boy.”
Least Miserable Moment: When Maureen survives the attack with a “nasty raspberry on her knee.”
Overall Misery Level: Happily comatose
19. Greenberg and Florence (Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig), Greenberg
Though Greenberg might be the most dysfunctional person in Baumbach’s filmography, Gerwig’s Florence balances him so well that the two manage to, eventually, strive toward some sort of demented contentment. Greenberg is an insecure asshole who unleashes on everyone in his path; Florence is an insecure sweetheart who can’t stop letting everyone walk all over her. But while both are miserable alone, they’re a little bit less so with each other. Only hours after they first meet, Greenberg goes down on her in perhaps the most nonerotic cinematic depiction of cunnilingus, and both agree they won’t have sex again. They do, of course, continue to have awkward sexual encounters and strange, destructive interpersonal interactions. Greenberg criticizes and insults Florence, who eventually freezes him out, until he accompanies her to an abortion and sweetly takes care of her in the aftermath. In the end, both seem calmed by the other’s presence. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Most Miserable Moment: When Greenberg tells Florence, apropos of nothing, that she was molested as a child. “I wasn’t molested,” she says.
Least Miserable Moment: “You like me so much more than you think you do.”
Overall Misery Level: Gently blue
18. Max and Kate (Chris Eigeman and Cara Buono), Kicking and Screaming
Max, a philosophy major with no prospects, has several postgrad hobbies, including doing crossword puzzles, drinking heavily, having sex with his friends’ girlfriends, and dating a high-schooler named Kate with gigantic hair. Their relationship is one of the least miserable in the film, perhaps because Kate is a child and therefore cannot truly do much else besides “support” Max as he attempts to figure out what he wants to do with his life. Nobody seems very troubled by their age difference except me!
Most Miserable Moment: “You know, tomorrow’s my birthday.” “That’s terrible. That’s just the worst. I’ve inherited a tragedy. It’s like a venereal disease, a birthday.”
Least Miserable Moment: When Kate convinces Max to wear jeans.
Overall Misery Level: Shitty birthday
17. Bernard and Lili (Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin), The Squid and the Whale
Anna Paquin must suffer the aggressive affections of both Jeff Daniels and Jesse Eisenberg as Lili, Daniels’s hot writing student and eventual house guest and sex partner. Early on in the film, Lili reads an opaque piece aloud; both dad and son stare at her, panting audibly. “Did you get that it was about her cunt?” asks Bernard later. For some reason, Lili ends up living and sleeping with Bernard and flirting with Walt, seemingly enjoying the deranged frisson of it all. As a “couple,” Lili and Bernard don’t seem particularly happy, but they don’t seem particularly miserable either — both seem to be sort of passively going through the motions with one another, playing their respective roles in a tale as old and gross as time itself.
Most Miserable Moment: When Walt walks in on the two of them about to have sex; Lili says, “I’m not in the mood,” and Bernard says, simultaneously, “Put me in your mouth.”
Least Miserable Moment: When Lili eventually moves out and hopefully begins dating other intellectual women.
Overall Misery Level: The image of Jeff Daniels saying “put me in your mouth” being forever burned into your brain
16. Pauline and Malcolm (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black), Margot at the Wedding
Pauline and Malcolm are a mismatch from Hades. She’s marrying him for a lack of better ideas; he’s cheating on her with their high-school-age babysitter. They’ve been engaged for only a few months, dating for only a year, and have already gone to couples’ therapy. He spends most of his time writing letters to magazine editors and has a mustache that’s “meant to be funny.” He is openly jealous of Bono. When he loses at croquet, he throws a mallet and screams “fuck you!!!” Still, somehow, at the end of the film, they seem to be the only thing making each other happy. They should be miserable, and yet, they aren’t, not exactly.
Most Miserable Moment: When Pauline confronts him about making out with their underage babysitter, he yanks a branch from the ground and begins to sob.
Least Miserable Moment: When Pauline tells him she’s pregnant, he says, “I think I’m really happy?”
Overall Misery Level: Thinking too much about Bono
15. Jane and Grover (Olivia d’Abo and Josh Hamilton), Kicking and Screaming
When we first meet Jane and Grover, they’ve just graduated from college and are having a monotonous conversation about their future (or lack thereof) at a party. “I’m off to Prague … I know that Prague’s a cliché now,” says Jane. “Czechoslovakia is the worst place to go,” says Grover. They proceed to argue over whether Prague is “overrated,” then over who gets to have the conversation as “material” for their future works of genius. It’s not clear what they despise more: the concept of Eastern Europe or each other. However, flashbacks to the beginning of their relationship evoke a sunnier time, when Jane fiddled constantly with her transparent retainer and they discussed each other’s names in dive bars. At the end of the film, after ignoring Jane’s phone calls for months, Grover appears to be on the verge of following her to Prague — though whether or not this is a good thing isn’t exactly clear.
Most Miserable Moment: When Jane refers to Grover’s writing as “small.”
Least Miserable Moment: When Grover tells Jane that if she does, indeed, go to Prague, “You will come back a bug!”
Overall Misery Level: Watching an early era Baumbach movie about white male anxiety
14. Mamie-Claire and Dylan (Heather Lind and Michael Chernus), Mistress America
Mamie-Claire and Dylan are a specific sort of Baumbach Miserable: deeply unhappy, but happy about it. It’s a Connecticut sort of misery. It works for them. They scream so loudly at each other that their neighbors feel comfortable walking in and calmly confronting them about it. When Mamie-Claire hugs Dylan, he says, “You know how uncomfortable I get when you try to force affection on me.” But, as Mamie-Claire explains to Brooke, from whom she stole Dylan years before, “I really love Dylan. I know you loved him for his money, but I really love him as a person. I love his blond hair and his beard. And also his money. But in that order.” Dylan is still in love with Brooke — “You want to smoke my weed?” he asks her upon seeing her for the first time in years — and Mamie-Claire knows it, but it doesn’t really bother her. In a strange, Baumbachian way, they’re perfect for each other.
Most Miserable Moment: “I play the guy wearing the fleece, but I’m not just some asshole bankrolling your fitness goals.”
Least Miserable Moment: “Your face is too close to me.” “I’m hugging you.”
Overall Misery Level: Connecticut
13. Lester and Ramona (Eric Stoltz and Annabella Sciorra), Mr. Jealousy
Lester, a creep and a writer, cannot stop obsessing over Ramona’s exes. “There are 26 men out there who have fucked my girlfriend,” he announces to his friends at dinner. The fact that this is the basis for an actual … movie … (even though the movie purports to be a critique of this behavior) still blows my mind. The ’90s were on some serious pre-incel shit. Fortunately, Ramona has an amazing coat in this movie. But moving on. The original Hannah Horvath, Lester is also obsessed with the idea that he’s the voice of his generation. These twin fixations put him in the same therapy group as Ramona’s ex-boyfriend Dashiell, wherein he impersonates his friend Vince so that he can pump Dashiell for information. Later, Vince joins the same group and impersonates Lester with an utterly inexplicable British accent. Ultimately, Lester drives Ramona away by saying things like, “You moved too fast with me,” (“Are you jealous of yourself?” she asks) and ditching dates with her so he can go to drinks with her ex.
Most Miserable Moment: “I wish you could be as jealous of me as I am of you.” “We love differently, Lester.”
Least Miserable Moment: The movie ends with Ramona and Lester reconciling (?!) at a wedding.
Overall Misery Level: Generically unhappy
12. Diane and Travis (Lauren Katz and Chris Reed), Highball
Baumbach has disowned Highball, a tiny movie made in a week with leftover budget from Mr. Jealousy that can only be described as a gentle circus of the mundane. The film centers on a series of parties thrown by miserable Brooklynites Diane and Travis, one of the most mismatched couples in Baumbach’s repertoire who, despite being the film’s protagonists, do not even appear on its VHS cover. Diane is a classic pre-Gerwig Baumbach woman: high-strung, needy, unhinged. Travis is an idiot. After clashing over the structure of their first two parties, Diane and Travis break up. Diane gets drunk, dresses up as a prostitute, and tries to sleep with his best friend Wes (Eric Stoltz), who comes out to her as gay. Eventually, they get back together and, yes, throw another party.
Most Miserable Moment: When Diane begins to discuss throwing a “salon” while having sex with Travis.
Least Miserable Moment: When Travis is quietly reading Into Thin Air.
Overall Misery Level: Disowning your own movie
11. Tracy, Tony, and Nicolette (Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones), Mistress America
The only throuple on our list, Tracy and Tony and Nicolette weave a twisted web of intrigue and zero sexual tension. Technically, only Tony and Nicolette are dating during the film, but Tracy’s crush on Tony and Nicolette’s seething jealousy of Tracy are really the only things keeping Tony and Nicolette together. Tony is a terrible boyfriend, leading Tracy on and answering Tracy’s phone calls during sex and dragging Nicolette all the way to Greenwich on Tracy’s pretend stepsister’s behalf. Nobody in this arrangement is happy or fulfilled. But some of the film’s best, weirdest lines come from Nicolette’s totally rational suspicion and envy: “Why don’t you just stick pasta in her pussy?” Near the end of the film, Greta Gerwig’s Brooke yells at all three: “There’s no cheating when you’re 18. You should all be touching each other all the time.”
Most Miserable Moment: When Tracy kisses Tony and he says, “I need somebody I can love, not somebody I have to keep up with.”
Least Miserable Moment: When all three begin their own collegiate writer’s club.
Overall Misery Level: Situational depression
10. Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), Marriage Story
At first, Charlie and Nicole appear to be the most civil divorcing couple Baumbach’s ever written. The movie begins with both listing each other’s best qualities. They’re polite, they can still hang out in group settings, and they’re mostly concerned with the well-being of their kid. Soon, though, things turn nuclear. Nicole hires Laura Dern as her lawyer, Charlie fights for custody, and their faux civility descends into a mutually agreed-upon madness. Nicole decides she wants sole custody. Charlie accidentally stabs himself in the arm during a custody screening and brings up Nicole’s drinking in court. Everybody shits on the city of Los Angeles. Both sing Sondheim in a public setting. By the end, though, both settle down and agree on joint custody, and have a brief, sweet moment, with one stopping to tie the other’s shoes. Most of their misery as a couple takes place offscreen, or in moments of extreme frustration, and we’re ultimately left with their soft striving toward happiness, apart from each other but inextricably connected.
Most Miserable Moment: Both express a profound desire for the other’s death.
Least Miserable Moment: When Charlie discovers Nicole’s list of his best qualities, and reads it, sobbing, to his son.
Overall Misery Level: Being alive
9. Sophie and Patch (Mickey Sumner and Patrick Heusinger), Frances Ha
Patch is a finance bro with a distressed baseball hat who says things like “take a leak.” Sophie is a wry book editor with incredible glasses. She doesn’t seem to give a shit about him, but decides to quit her job, move to Japan, and marry him anyway, devastating her best friend Frances in the process. Near the end of the film, a wasted Sophie tells him he shouldn’t be sad about his grandpa’s death because he was a “cheating Nazi.” She proceeds to spend the night in Frances’s bed and fantasize about a life the two might lead together, sans Patch. “Are you gonna marry Patch?” asks Frances. “No,” says Sophie. She does marry Patch.
Most Miserable Moment: When Frances spies on Sophie yelling at Patch for not spending enough money at her college alumni silent auction.
Least Miserable Moment: When Sophie contemplates leaving Patch and moving back to New York. “I miss my job,” she says. “I miss old skyscrapers.”
Overall Misery Level: Chemical depression
8. Irene and Dashiell (Bridget Fonda and Chris Eigeman), Mr. Jealousy
Dashiell, a best-selling-author douche with an extreme superiority complex, forces sweet, stuttering Irene to drink Scotch. He fantasizes constantly about his ex-girlfriends in therapy, and even goes so far as to sleep with one of them (Ramona) and openly fall back in love with her. He admits he has never dated a woman he didn’t cheat on. He is punched in the face by Lester in a public setting for fucking Ramona. Still, Irene and Dashiell show up at Vince and Lucretia’s wedding.
Most Miserable Moment: Me realizing Bridget Fonda has been wasted in this role.
Least Miserable Moment: Me watching Dashiell get punched in the face.
Overall Misery Level: Quiet desperation
7. Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), While We’re Young
At first glance, Jamie and Darby are enviably happy, the sort of hipster-cool, only vaguely irritating couple who say “fuck you” to each other lovingly, own a chicken, and get married in an “old water tower in Harlem with a mariachi band and a Slip ‘N Slide.” But over the course of While We’re Young, their façade crumbles, revealing a broken marriage full of weird lies and extreme narcissism. “Jamie’s in love with Jamie,” Darby tells Josh over drinks, before trying to kiss him. Later, she leaves him, calling him a “fucking asshole.” Jamie barely reacts. “If I’m totally honest with myself,” Jamie says at one point, “I don’t think I’m ever gonna die.”
Most Miserable Moment: “Do you forget I exist?” Darby asks Jamie, a few scenes before peacing out.
Least Miserable Moment: “He’s always shooting things,” Darby says of Jamie early in the film, smiling lovingly at him.
Overall Misery Level: Going to a wedding in an old water tower in Harlem with a mariachi band and a Slip ‘N Slide.
6. Frances and Dan, Frances Ha
Frances and Dan only technically appear in one scene together, which means I’m breaking one of my rules, but it’s such an incredible and evocative scene that we need to discuss it. Frances, whose one true love is her best friend Sophie, is visibly uncomfortable with her dull boyfriend Dan’s decision to buy a pair of freaky hairless cats. “I’ll give you $200 not to get the cats,” she says. He responds by asking her to move in. “Oh, wow,” she says. “I mean, I do have this other thing. I promised Sophie I’d stay through the lease. I feel bad. Is that bad? I’m sorry.” The conversation is so deeply, profoundly loveless that it leads to an automatic breakup. “This hasn’t been great for a while,” they agree. Both pause. “Let’s move in together,” says Dan. We never see him again.
Most Miserable Moment: This scene.
Least Miserable Moment: “I want to pay you for the cats.” “I’m not gonna take money from you, but I am going to get the cats anyway.”
Overall Misery Level: Going to Paris but accidentally sleeping through the entire trip
5. Skippy and Miami (Jason Wiles and Parker Posey), Kicking and Screaming
Baumbach made Kicking and Screaming when he was 25, and it, uh, shows. It is full of truly insufferable men who have very few redeeming qualities. For example, Skippy! Skippy has gone back to school but can’t manage to do any of his work, instead preferring to drink Colt 45 and watch TV and make a mockery of his undergrad girlfriend, Miami. Appropriately, Miami is cheating on him with their friend Max. She confesses to doing so on a piece of paper that reads, “I cheated on you :(”
Most Miserable Moment: “You make me sad, Skippy.” “God, I begged you to stay on Prozac.”
Least Miserable Moment: At the end of the above scene, Skippy makes fun of the way Miami asks him to “get out,” and she laughs with pure, unfiltered delight.
Overall Misery Level: Going off Prozac
4. Margot and Jim (Nicole Kidman and John Turturro), Margot at the Wedding
Margot is perhaps one of Baumbach’s most miserable characters. As such, her relationships are profoundly miserable as well. Margot hates games. She believes everyone is autistic. When her husband, Jim — whom she leaves before the movie begins, via a note — gives her slippers because her feet are always cold, she says, “It makes me sad to get a present I already have. It makes me feel like you don’t know me.” She even hates the man she has a brief, one-scene affair with: “How can I be married to Jim and fuck Dick and want both of them and not want either one of them?” she asks.
Most Miserable Moment: When Jim picks up the dying dog on the side of the highway, Margot is angry with him. “You make me feel like shit,” she says, “because I wouldn’t have stopped. I hate myself when I’m with you. Sometimes I find you so despicable.”
Least Miserable Moment: When Margot is stuck in a tree by herself.
Overall Misery Level: Dying dog
3. Walt and Sophie (Jesse Eisenberg and Halley Feiffer), The Squid and the Whale
It seems impossible, but Jesse Eisenberg is more insufferable as Walt in The Squid and the Whale than he is as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Walt is my least favorite type of person: a rude nerd. He pretends to have written Roger Waters’s “Hey You” and performs it at a school talent show. He is obsessed with his dick of a father and tries to impress him by sharing that his girlfriend Sophie is “not gorgeous, but she’s cute.” He is rude to Laura Linney. He tells poor Sophie things like, “I wish you didn’t have so many freckles on your face.” Most importantly, he is an awful kisser. Neither he nor Sophie appear to derive any joy from their relationship; instead, it is a series of small miseries piled on top of larger, more consequential miseries. They eventually break up so Walt can lust after his father’s student and fuck buddy Anna Paquin and continue to be a rude nerd uninterrupted.
Most Miserable Moment: After Sophie gives Walt a hand job and he ejaculates instantaneously, he blames her. “I usually go for much longer.” Later, after he constantly pressures her to have sex, she asks if he wants to come over and he says, “Jesus, you really wanna do it, don’t you? Everything’s so serious, suddenly. Why am I feeling this pressure from you?” Walt is hell.
Least Miserable Moment: When Walt describes The Metamorphosis, which he has not read, as “Kafkaesque,” and Sophie says, “Yeah, it’s written by Kafka.”
Overall Misery Level: Kafkaesque
2. Vince and Lucretia (Carlos Jacott and Marianne Jean-Baptiste), Mr. Jealousy
Lucretia hates Vince. I do not understand why they’re together and the movie never makes it apparent. At one point, she pushes a stove down the stairs because he’s an hour late for their date. At another, she gets angry at him for looking at the protagonist of a movie for too long. Later, she yells at him for eating a cheeseburger. (The fact that one of the only black women in Baumbach’s catalogue is furious at all times is, uh, fodder for another piece entirely.) Inexplicably, they get married at the end of the film.
Most Miserable Moment: “Vince often knocks on the door of profundity and runs away,” Lucretia says calmly to a group of their mutual friends.
Least Miserable Moment: N/A.
Overall Misery Level: Nuclear fallout
1. Bernard and Joan (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney), The Squid and the Whale
When we meet Bernard and Joan, 1980s Park Slope parents who stand in for Baumbach’s own parents, they’re already on the verge of divorce. Bernard is a failed-ish author who’s deep inside of his own asshole; Joan is ready to break free of his stifling, chaotic-neutral energy and begin a writing career in her own right. They convey this instantaneously through one of the most microcosmically fucked-up tennis games I’ve ever seen. In fact, Bernard and Joan can turn any topic or situation into a metaphor for their disintegrating marriage: Dickens’s major and minor works, cat food, book collections, adolescent masturbation, burgers, pneumonia, Godard. After Bernard moves across the park, their family as a whole begins to fall apart, with each son taking sides. Bernard begins having sex with one of his students, and ends the film by suffering a heart attack in the middle of the street and calling Joan a bitch; meanwhile, Joan thrives, writing a successful short story for The New Yorker. In their last scene together, they argue about Godard’s jump cuts while Bernard is carted away in an ambulance.
Most Miserable Moment: “Your mother’s backhand is pretty weak.”
Least Miserable Moment: When Joan nervously poops right before announcing their divorce to their children, Bernard doesn’t dwell on it.
Overall Misery Level: Sustained waterboarding