When whisky appears in film, it can be an act of product placement or a cool prop—or it can work to signify something greater for the characters and plot. Noah Baumbach largely focuses his films on artists, often using whisky to underscore both the creatives themselves and their personal strife. The troubled artist with bottle in hand is no new invention, but Baumbach fleshes out the stereotype in subtle human terms, shadowing their creativity, anguish, and intellect with nuance. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
For Baumbach, drinking whisky isn’t just a personal decision—it’s a reflection of taste and intelligence. There’s an element of sophistication to many of his characters; they are creators, or at least critical thinkers, and he conveys that refinement through whisky. It shows up in “Kicking and Screaming,” when the well-dressed, well-spoken Max (Chris Eigeman) drinks scotch while his postgrad peers sip beer. Whisky is also the drink of choice for Eigeman’s character in “Mr. Jealousy,” a successful (though obnoxious) author. When Frances (Greta Gerwig), the titular dancer in “Frances Ha,” proclaims, “We need whiskies,” it represents more than her literal thirst. She is distancing herself from her non-artistic friend, using whisky to highlight her more free-spirited approach to life.
For Baumbach, whisky’s role isn’t just as a symbol for creativity, but a coping mechanism for struggle and interpersonal conflict as well. Life is hard and whisky helps. In “Marriage Story,” Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) reaches for a bottle of Macallan right after serving her husband divorce papers. In “Greenberg,” when the titular character (Ben Stiller) finds himself at an uncomfortable dinner, he asks the waiter for more scotch. In “While We’re Young,” Josh (Stiller) is struggling to make his case to family and friends. There’s a bottle of Jim Beam in his hand throughout the scene.
Many of Baumbach’s films are taken as autobiographical or autofiction. Could his characters like whisky because he does? That certainly seems to be the case for Gerwig, his partner since 2011 and frequent collaborator. In 2013, she describes wrapping a scene for “Frances Ha,” saying, “We went to this bar and felt like we’d earned our whisky.” The following year, while starring in the play “The Village Bike,” she punctuates a strenuous performance by saying that afterward, “I need a whisky.”
Oddly, the movie that seemingly should be Baumbach’s richest whisky text, based on its title—1997’s “Highball”—has no direct mention or display of it. Various characters drink short pours of unidentified brown spirit, and there are no actual Highballs depicted. Baumbach has since disowned the film, which he shot over the course of six days with money left over from “Mr. Jealousy,” calling it “kind of a foolish experiment.” The hurried filmmaking could explain the lack of whisky detail, though the idea of whisky as a drink for the sophisticated carries through. Baumbach himself appears in the film, arriving for a New Year’s Eve party overdressed in a suit. He drinks what looks an awful lot like whisky.
Whisky in Noah Baumbach Films
Bernard (Jeff Daniels) explains to his son Frank (Owen Kline) that philistines are people who don’t “care about books or interesting films and things,” and it’s not a stretch to assume that the arrogant author would consider them people who don’t appreciate good whisky either. Whisky features in this divorce drama just once, when Frank, acting rebellious, drinks from his father’s bottle of scotch, later getting sick and throwing up. He is way too young to be drinking, but beyond that, the results suggest that he isn’t ready or capable of being the type of person—artistic and cultured—that his father wants him to be. This incident also reflects poorly on Bernard’s parenting.
As for the whisky itself, it’s a brand made up for the film. Look closely at the bottle and the label says “Robert Andres 45 year old single malt from the Highlands”— named, inexplicably, for the film’s key grip, Robert M. Andres. (Perhaps he’s a scotch fan.) —Ted Simmons
Baumbach’s most recent film centers on a pair of highly creative characters. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a theater director grappling with his divorce from actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Baumbach offers a comprehensive view into this show-business couple’s life and there is plenty of alcohol throughout. While the bulk of it is wine and cocktails, one pivotal scene features whisky.
When Nicole serves Charlie divorce papers—a shock to him—she pours the two of them a glass of Macallan 15 year old Fine Oak. The high-end scotch serves to soothe this uneasy moment. We see the characters stumble through the harsh legal processes of divorce, fighting one another along the way. But Nicole also looks out for Charlie. She orders lunch for him at one of their early mediated meetings, and she pours scotch for them both, rather than just herself. Many Baumbach characters use whisky to cope with life’s struggles, and by offering Charlie scotch with the divorce papers, Nicole is acknowledging this shared burden they have. —Sam Stone
Baumbach’s feature debut establishes not just his focus on smart artists and the conversations they have, but his framing of whisky as a drink for the enlightened. During a bar scene, Max, the most highfalutin in this group of recent college grads, drinks a whisky while everyone else drinks beer. “Well, this is all just habit. These drinks we’re drinking. Scotch. You smoke like a chimney, Grover. Affectations that become habits,” he says, demonstrating an insight and self-awareness that his friends lack. Later, at a different bar, Grover (Josh Hamilton) meets Jane (Olivia d’Abo) and asks what she’s drinking. “Scotch,” she says, to which he replies, “Yikes.” Is that because he doesn’t share her taste in booze, or because the drink positions Jane as his intellectual superior? —Ted Simmons
Frances is a dancer who surrounds herself with fellow creatives. As she moves from apartment to apartment in New York City, whisky follows, especially when she lives with Lev (Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen). Their whisky habit seems to rub off on her, in fact. When Frances first visits the boys’ apartment, the gang drinks whisky near a small bar that’s packed with the likes of Maker’s Mark and Jack Daniel’s. Later, when Sophie (Mickey Sumner) visits Frances, shortly after she has moved in with the boys, Frances declares, “We need whiskies.”
As she further distances herself from Sophie, Frances again relies on whisky to prove her artistry and intellect. She emphasizes that she reads more than Sophie does, and when Frances pours a whisky, Sophie doesn’t drink it. Frances, the true artist that she is, downs it for her. This moment underscores the entirely different paths the two friends are on. In the beginning, they live together and even claim to be the same person. As Frances and Sophie live apart, they grow apart. Frances leans into her freewheeling artist life, while Sophie works in an office and is engaged by the end of the film. Frances’s spontaneity and willingness to drink whisky in the middle of the day is directly in contrast to Sophie’s more calculated nature. —Sam Stone
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The follow-up to “Kicking and Screaming” has two instructional whisky scenes. Insecure Lester (Eric Stoltz) goes through all sorts of theatrics to meet his girlfriend’s ex, Dashiel, and when the two finally strike a friendship, it’s over a dram. They share whiskies at a bar as they discuss writing. “Two more Jameson. Neat,” Dashiel later tells the waiter. For Lester, an aspiring writer lacking confidence, the drinks act as a bridge to connect with, and emulate, the more accomplished Dash. Lester may not have a critically-acclaimed book to his name, but with a whisky in hand, he can at least look the part of a successful writer.
In a later scene, Lester visits Dash’s apartment and the two drink Glenlivet 12 year old. “We’re having the good stuff tonight,” Dash says. “I’ve been looking forward to this drink all day.” Dash’s girlfriend, Irene (Bridget Fonda), asks Lester if the published author turned him onto scotch too. “He makes me drink it. I hate it,” she admits, saying she favors vodka and cranberry juice. As their drink preferences suggest, perhaps Dash and Irene are not the best match, and when Irene says she’s writing an essay about her stutter, it isn’t too hard to imagine that the creative endeavor, like the scotch, is being forced upon her by Dash, who wants her to be something that she isn’t—an artist like himself. —Ted Simmons
Roger Greenberg—Greenberg, as he’s known in the film—is a complex character who drinks a lot of whisky, often in uncomfortable moments. When he first meets his brother’s assistant, Florence (Gerwig), she offers to buy him groceries while he house-sits. The first two items on his list are whisky and ice cream sandwiches. He’s clearly uncomfortable in his new digs, so he turns to whisky (and ice cream).
Whisky appears again when Greenberg offers it to his old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), whom he hasn’t seen in a long time. He sips it when he writes angry letters to companies about poor service. He has it at a party full of much younger people—where he’s feeling out of place and lost. And while it’s clear that Greenberg uses whisky as a coping mechanism, it’s also worth noting that he is seen frequently drinking Laphroaig 25 year old—a single malt scotch that sells for around $500. Perhaps the hefty price tag provides additional comfort: At least he can afford to drink well.
In a particularly uncomfortable scene, Greenberg dines out with Ivan and Florence for his birthday. His relationship with Florence is still rocky, and it’s the first time Florence and Ivan are meeting. Greenberg’s intense awkwardness is clear when he impatiently asks the waiter, “Can I get another scotch?” Looking at the film as a whole, Greenberg has found himself in the midst of a lot of personal strife. This scene zeroes in on that—he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing with his life, or where many of his relationships stand—but a dram in hand helps him get through it. —Sam Stone
Baumbach’s take on hipster culture comes with plenty of whisky references. He contrasts the middle-aged Josh and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) with the much younger Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), sprinkling whisky throughout. “Joshy, street beach in effect! get your goddamn self to the bush of wick for bourbon and ice creeeeem,” Jamie sends in a text. Bourbon doesn’t actually appear in the ensuing scene, however—perhaps a sign that Jamie is not always honest in his storytelling.
Later, when Josh goes to pitch his documentary for additional investment money, he encounters Hedge Fund Dave (Ryan Serhant) who has poured himself a glass of whisky. “You see ‘Mad Men’?” Dave asks before pretending the drink is really apple juice. If whisky signifies sophistication, Dave is most certainly putting on appearances.
Josh encounters whisky once again when he stays the night with Fletcher (Adam Horovitz), who pours him some Talisker 10 year old, the scotch serving as solace after a fight with Cornelia. By the end of the film, at his breaking point, Josh crashes a commemorative ceremony, swiping a bottle of Jim Beam bourbon from the bar. He is the only one troubled by Jamie’s dishonesty, his clarity—or absence of patience—catalyzed by the whiskey. After he’s cooled down, he and Cornelia sip from the bottle together, his wife perhaps not sharing his outrage, but willing to share a drink in solidarity.
Whisky follows Josh throughout the film, and one early quote has us thinking about how filmmaking and whisky making are alike. “I’ve learned along the way you can discover more by not knowing all the answers, by allowing yourself to be surprised by what you encounter,” Josh says. “And sometimes that means waiting years for something to happen.” —Ted Simmons