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Learning about movies at your mother’s knee

Noah Baumbach said he doesn’t read critics.

There’s nothing unusual in the slightest about filmmakers saying that. The number of film, television and theater people in all capacities who claim to shun critics’ reviews is probably large enough to stretch from Malibu to Broadway.

The difference is that Baumbach, whose “Mistress America” opens Friday, is the son of two film critics. His father is novelist, short story writer and critic Jonathan Baumbach, former two-time chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. His mother, Georgia Brown, was a prominent film critic for the Village Voice.

“I don’t read any of the reviews,” he said. “And haven’t for many years ... It’s not just the bad reviews, the good reviews, too.”

The reason I asked is that Baumbach is a hugely smart and witty New York filmmaker whose reviews not only tend to spray wildly all over the map but one whose films tend to vary wildly in quality, no matter who you are. What that means is that Baumbach is worth enormous regard to some of us for having made “Margot at the Wedding,” for instance, with its remarkable performance by Nicole Kidman, even though the film, in general, got slammed by most critics when it opened.

Reviews of his best film, “The Squid and the Whale,” were more consistent but still all over the map.

Under such circumstances, a fellow might get downright gun shy, you know? Which is why I asked.

But there’s still nothing the slightest bit immaterial about Baumbach coming from such a film family. “Movies were such a big conversation in our house. Even before I saw any movies, I heard my parents talking about them,” he said.

When he did start out seeing movies, he said, “it was like seeing them for the second time.”

In his early years – his first film “Kicking and Screaming,” he said, was still working off the influence of college – he involved his parents in the process more. Now, he only shows the finished films to them.

That doesn’t mean, though, that he shuns input from the most congenial film people he knows.

Far from it.

He co-wrote Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and said of Anderson, “we show each other [our] scripts” of impending work. And they show each other cuts of their films, too, and give each other what film and theatrical folks like to call notes.

Unlike some of the films he’s made that have now had the deepest impact – “Margot” and, for better or worse, his very personal “The Squid and the Whale” – he describes the writing process of “Mistress America” with his lead actress and current life partner Greta Gerwig as “a lot of fun for me.” They were creating a film comedy about “the kind of people you meet when you’re young and unformed.”

“Mistress America” is a story about “outgrowing somebody that’s older than you,” he said.

What Baumbach admits about his films is “the product is for the audience but the making of them is for me ... I want to have my own experience of them.”

But he also knows as the son of two very heady film critics, movies have two different lives – the one “from the reception of its time and [the one from] the life afterward.”

In neither way, is “Mistress America” likely to be major Baumbach, barring major unforeseen biographical happenstance – no matter how pleasant the film is from most points of view.


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