Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher may be the stars of this friends-with-benefits romcom, written by New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether and originally titled Fuck Buddies. But it is Mindy Kaling and Gerwig (first seen sloshed in shorts with “Whore” written on them) who provide indie cred as Portman’s pals.
Wes Anderson’s one-joke stop-motion fantasy is set in the retro-futuristic Megasaki City, where an outbreak of canine flu leads the Mayor to dispatch all mutts to Trash Island. Controversy surrounded Gerwig’s character, the foreign-exchange student and white savior who leads the pro-pooch uprising, expresses herself stridently (unlike most of her human Japanese counterparts, whose words aren’t subtitled) and disses a scientist voiced by Yoko Ono. Audiences were entitled to feel they’d been sold a pup.
Al Pacino is all tempestuous bluster and stinging hurt as a stage legend confronting obsolescence in this adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2009 novel. Playing a teacher who is sleeping with the dean’s daughter and being romantically pursued by a transgender man, Gerwig arrives in Pacino’s life with a collection of sex toys and promptly disavows her former lesbianism. The actor is saddled with the sorry task of embodying the sexually fluid younger generation that is causing old, straight men so much grief.
Among the quartet of stories in Woody Allen’s tourist-trap roundelay is one in which an architect (Alec Baldwin) doles out romantic advice to his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg), who is torn between a girlfriend (Gerwig) and another woman (Elliot Page ). When sexual abuse allegations became headline news once more, several cast members expressed regrets about collaborating with Allen. “I will not work for him again,” said Gerwig.
16 The Dish & the Spoon (2011)
A chaste odd-couple romance between a woman who flees her unfaithful husband and a waif-like boy hiding out in a lighthouse. Gerwig was already on her way to Hollywood fame, but her co-star Olly Alexander was still in the early years of Years & Years, with only a handful of parts (including Jane Campion’s Bright Star) to his name. The stars have an offbeat rapport, not least when Gerwig dresses him as a girl, or the pair go dancing in 18th-century costumes.
Four struggling actors write a bare-bones horror movie in the woods, creating a bogeyman with a paper bag on his head. Despite a zippy first half-hour which takes amusing sideswipes at the film festival circuit, the Duplass brothers’ horror-comedy eventually sinks into the doldrums. Highlights include Gerwig expertly friend-zoning a hapless suitor. “That’s what’s so great about you,” she tells him. “You’re, like, my best friend but also like my brother!” Harsh.
Gerwig may not last long in this indie horror, but she helps establish its retro, off-kilter flavor. In a Farrah Fawcett-style blond feathery disco-flick, she signals trouble ahead by overreacting to dinner (“This pizza’s nasty today!”), then warns her best friend not to accept a babysitting job from a creepy stranger (Tom Noonan of Manhunter fame) and casually delivers some atmospheric scene-setting: “I’m so sick of hearing about that stupid eclipse!”
The changing ownership of one dachshund links four tales of hard knocks and thwarted dreams from indie provocateur Todd Solondz. Gerwig plays Dawn Wiener, the beleaguered teenage protagonist of Solondz’s 1995 breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse. But wait – didn’t he kill her off in his 2004 film Palindromes? “I thought it would be nice to give her an alternative existence,” the director explained. This bold new Dawn is a veterinary nurse who falls for her former schoolyard tormentor, played by Kieran Culkin.
Fittingly for a director who would later make the Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s daffy campus comedy resembles Clueless: The College Years. Gerwig is Violet, one of a trio of East coast bright sparks dedicated to improving the lives of their fellow students. In her spare time, she also plans to launch a global dance craze. This is a woman so relentlessly upbeat that she responds buoyantly even to criticism: “Thank you for this chastisement,” she trills after having her flaws itemised.
One of the most piercing films ever made about grief, Pablo Larraín’s claustrophobic portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination would grab a higher place on any ranking of Gerwig’s movies if she had more to do in it. She is soothingly attentive, though, as Jackie’s friend and confidante Nancy Tuckerman. Listing for her the dignitaries who have confirmed their attendance at the funeral, Gerwig’s delivery lends a matter-of-fact roll-call to the consoling softness of a lullaby.
Gerwig and Joe Swanberg co-directed and co-wrote what appears at first to be a shapeless rag-bag of vignettes. They also play the central couple, whose relationship is disintegrating due to emotional and geographical distance. Opening with a candid sex scene and populated by characters who are sometimes light on charm, it is one of the key works of mumblecore – that small but influential pocket of no-budget, DIY indie film-making pioneered by Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, Aaron Katz, the Duplass brothers and Lynn Shelton (the late Humpday director who has a small role here), and mostly devoted to meandering tales of troubled or unrequited love.
For her second co-writing credit with Noah Baumbach, Gerwig helped create one of her spikiest roles: Brooke, a wannabe restaurateur and socialite, somehow both laser-focused and flailing, more If-girl than It-girl. At the grand old age of 30, she is dispensing life lessons to her protege and stepsister-to-be (Lola Kirke). This was a new direction for Gerwig, with intriguing flashes of flintiness beneath the sparkling exterior. These surface during a startling scene in which Brooke is accused of youthful bullying by a former classmate. The subject is never resolved conclusively, but the cold glint in Gerwig’s eye hints at an icy core.
Mike Mills’s comedy about growing up in late-1970s California with a flamboyant, unorthodox mother (Annette Bening) has a blank space at its center in the shape of 15-year-old newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, who doesn’t make much impression as the teenager surrounded by complex women. These include Gerwig as Abbie, the photographer to whom his mother, Dorothea, partially entrusts his emotional education. Mills’s script articulates beautifully the parental pain of waving children off into adulthood. “You get to see him out in the world as a person,” Dorothea tells Abbie, before adding sadly: “I never will.”
Stealing a teacher and would-be novelist (Ethan Hawke) away from his wife (Julianne Moore), Maggie (Gerwig) then has second thoughts when her life with him goes askew – which leads her to play matchmaker to the estranged couple. The scene in which she pitches this loopy romantic solution to a fierce, incredulous Moore is fantastic, and there are some choice run-ins with Bill Hader as Maggie’s closest confidante, who balks at her scheme and accuses her of “playing Titania and sprinkling stardust in their eyes”. There is real pain in Rebecca Miller’s film, not all of it neutralized by laughter.
6 LOL (2006)
Less shambolic than most mumblecore endeavors, the first of Gerwig’s collaborations with Swanberg examines the corrosive effects of technology on the romantic lives of a group of twentysomethings. It boasts intricate dialogue and an inventive use of split-screen; Gerwig is at first amusing and eventually agonizing as a woman trying to placate her boyfriend with nude selfies, after rebuffing his demands for phone sex. A genuine cri de mumble-coeur.
For her second solo directing gig, Gerwig adapts Louisa May Allcott’s evergreen 1868 novel, reshaping its chronology in a way that teases out telling ironies. The movie zigzags between different stages in the Massachusetts adolescence of fledgling novelist Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) and her three sisters. Oscar-nominated Florence Pugh expresses infinite varieties of frustration and heartbreak as Amy, Jo’s rival among her siblings. In her second performance for Gerwig, Ronan doesn’t shrink from the dislikable: she makes the sight of Amy losing composure in the face of criticism a cringing high-point.
The Avengers Assemble of mumblecore movies. Swanberg directs Gerwig as Hannah, the comedy writer bouncing between three men, two of them played by other mumblecore authors (Andrew Bujalski and Mark Duplass) and the third by Kent Osbourne (real-life writer for animated series such as Adventure Time). Funny and fraught with pass-agg tensions, the film – on which Gerwig and her co-stars get co-writing credits – contains an unflinching break-up scene: “I don’t think you can touch me any more,” Hannah tells her boyfriend, squirming against the wall to escape his goofball antics. Whether furiously rage-dancing, tearfully admitting “I tend to leave destruction in my wake”, or playing the trumpet naked in the bath, Gerwig’s range here is impressive.
The loosey-goosey naturalism that Gerwig had displayed in front of the camera for more than a decade was richly felt behind it, too, in this self-penned, solo-directing debut for which she was twice Oscar-nominated. Christine (Saoirse Ronan), AKA Lady Bird, is a low-level rebel on the brink of graduating from a Catholic high school in Sacramento. Orbiting around her are a sweetly dopey best chum (Beanie Feldstein), two potential boyfriends (Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges) and a perpetually disapproving mother (Laurie Metcalf), who believes that if you can’t say anything nice, it’s better to be brutally frank instead. Gerwig keeps the vignettes popping; they’re the colorful dots that form a pointillist portrait of Lady Bird’s life.
An actor couldn’t hope for a better showcase than this ecstatic comic character study. Frances (Gerwig) is a budding dancer making her way in New York City as her money runs out, her dreams wilt and her best friend moves to a swankier neighborhood. Gerwig co-wrote this, her second movie with Noah Baumbach. (They were a couple by this point, the filmmaker having left Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he co-wrote Greenberg.) Together, Gerwig and Baumbach exploit her character’s ungainly gait, propensity for slapstick, and innate giddiness. Frances is prone to flights of euphoria, such as the celebratory sprint through Manhattan where her speeding steps give way to leaps and pirouettes while David Bowie’s Modern Love clatters magically on the soundtrack – a near-exact restaging of Denis Lavant’s running dance from Leos Carax’s 1986 Mauvais Sang.
No movie has ever needed Gerwig so much, or used her presence as adroitly, as Noah Baumbach’s itchy, melancholy romcom. For the first 10 minutes, it appears to be her gig alone. As Florence, a chaotic twentysomething au pair, she dashes around Los Angeles on errands, walks the dog, goes to a party and has a joyless one-night stand, all while exuding an air of distracted, good-humored disappointment. Then Ben Stiller shows up as Roger Greenberg, her boss’s neurotic brother, and snatches the narrative away. Cleverly, this makes the audience pine for her – who wants to be stuck with a whingeing fussbudget after chilling with the sad-but-sunny Florence? When (or if) we grow to like Roger, it’s largely as a byproduct of the attention he receives from her: if she notices something in him, then maybe he’s not as intolerable as he seems.
Greenberg dragged mumblecore into the mainstream (Mark Duplass also has a small role) and ignited a professional relationship between Baumbach and Gerwig that soon morphed into a personal one. They have now collaborated on six occasions, including adaptations of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which opens this year’s Venice film festival, and an unreleased HBO pilot from 2012 based on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, as well as next year’s Barbie, which Gerwig has directed from a script they wrote together. It is Greenberg, though, that remains among the strongest, strangest films of the century – and the one that made Gerwig a star.