When Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story came out in 2019, he did an interview with Pitchfork as part of their 5-10-15-20 series, where the subject speaks about their favorite music at five-year intervals, as far back and forward as they can go. Baumbach had recently turned 50, and for his final entry, he selected the self-titled debut album by The Cars. He mentioned feeling “resistant” toward the band when they were first coming out, for their odd combination of top 40 appeal and more idiosyncratic influences. I must report that I am obsessed enough with Baumbach’s work for this to make me laugh, because I remember how often his characters have mentioned The Cars and/or their frontman Ric Ocasek, way before Baumbach turned 50. It’s not that he was literally claiming that he’d never listened to The Cars before 2019, or that I doubted his reticence about the band back in 1978. Ocasek had recently died, so it was a particularly appropriate time to mention him. But I had a strange, funny shiver of recognition: I knew you liked The Cars back then, even if you might not have been admitting it yet.
It’s the type of thing a Baumbach character might fixate on—especially in his early movies about young neurotic types bickering and second-guessing themselves over minutiae. I love Baumbach’s recent work too, especially Mistress America, one of several movies he made with co-writer and star Greta Gerwig. But when I wrote about Baumbach and Gerwig for an occasional column I maintain over at The A.V. Club, I felt pangs of guilt over showcasing one of Baumbach’s recent, mostly beloved, and generally well-known collaborators (Ben Stiller and Adam Driver are two more). I felt like I was neglecting his original unofficial rep company of working actors who never became major stars: Eric Stoltz, Chris Eigeman, John Lehr, and Carlos Jacott. These guys were there for the Baumbach movies before his Netflix deal, before his Oscar nominations, before The Squid and the Whale reinvigorated his career. In rock-history terms that Baumbach could surely appreciate, they’re the original lineup from the first few LPs. They co-starred in Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, and Highball, a movie that, per the popular consciousness and Baumbach himself, barely exists.
Despite this liminal existence and specific disownment, I have watched Highball, conservatively, 15 times. I’m certain that I’ve seen it more times than anyone involved with its production, which was completed in six days, or, per Baumbach, never really completed at all. This is why the film is credited to director “Ernie Fusco,” and writer “Jesse Carter.” The latter is a collective pseudonym for Baumbach, Christopher Reed, and Carlos Jacott. Because of this co-writing credit, Jacott strikes me as that metaphorical first-album band member who perhaps most deserves my attention. Highball isn’t Baumbach’s masterpiece, but it may be Jacott’s. He plays a character type seen often in life but less frequently in film: The longtime friend who all of your other friends regard as inexplicable, because he or she is an insufferable prick.
“Insufferable prick” is not Jacott’s natural character type. In Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach’s definitive chronicle of early-20s malaise, he plays Otis, the most outwardly neurotic member of a friend group sticking around their college down for some slow-motion existential terror (and also movie-naming trivia games). If Grover (Josh Hamilton) is the obvious self-insert character for Baumbach’s debut, Otis is the group’s (and maybe Baumbach’s) inner child. Not in the sense of personifying imagination, innocence, or mischievous whimsy, mind, but in his fussiness and helplessness. Grover and Max (Chris Eigeman) call him out as such when he frets over his transition to grad school, rationalizing that they have to leave him at the airport: “We just have to walk away, like mothers in nursery school.”
It doesn’t work; Otis defers grad school and joins his friends for a year of post-grad purgatory. As the least forceful member of the group; even the prospect of additional schooling fills him with anxiety. In the film’s many dialogue scenes, Hamilton relies on his immediate charisma and Eigeman takes a more amusingly hectoring tone, while Jacott’s deeper voice sounds weighed-down and hesitant. He underplays Otis, because Otis is constantly underplaying his own life, taking a tone of defensive excuses whenever he speaks. (He also, like Eigeman, doesn’t smile easily, which makes him funnier.) It’s telling that for all of the sometimes-cranky friend group’s frustrations over Otis’ habits myriad neurotic habits, the others don’t particularly pick on him, instead choosing as their go-to target of ire Skippy (Jason Wiles), a more gregarious and self-confident type. They don’t exactly say so, but the guys in Kicking and Screaming understand Otis, and how close they are to becoming him.
In Baumbach’s follow-up film, Mr. Jealousy, Jacott plays Vince, a slightly better-adjusted best-friend role. It’s a romantic comedy of sorts, somehow both hilarious and slightly wan, which is to say that it stars Eric Stoltz (better-cast in Kicking and Screaming as a campus-adjacent bartender, forever auditing classes). Vince is a bit like one of the Kicking characters if they got their act together relatively quickly, with a respectable fiancée and a reputable job as a lawyer (so, maybe not Otis, who seems like he’d need some more time on all counts). He’s especially stable compared to Stoltz’s lead character Lester, whose heart isn’t in his occasional substitute teaching, and whose relationships are often undone by his habitual jealousy.
The movie is mostly about Lester trying not to screw up a good thing with Ramona (Annabella Sciorra), and how he convinces himself the best way to do this is infiltrate the group therapy session attended by one of Ramona’s exes, a successful writer named Dashiell (Eigeman again). Lester attempts to use Vince’s name and problems—mostly of the couple-squabbling variety—to conceal his identity; Vince himself becomes dependent on advice passed along from the therapy sessions, which Lester modifies whenever it’s too critical of their friendship. Eventually Vince himself joins the group, also under an assumed name. It’s a bunch of farcical deception at half-speed, because Baumbach is a lot more interested in the details and the strategizing than the climactic confrontations. Mr. Jealousy is his weakest movie, and also several times funnier than many filmmakers’ best work.
Though its New York-y romance and Woody Allen-ish cadences makes Mr. Jealousy more familiar than Baumbach’s other movies, Stoltz and Jacott create an unusually realistic best-friend dynamic, in that neither one fully commits to being either the straight man or the wacky, instigating sidekick. They’re both too buttoned-up for the latter and too screwed up for the former, and Baumbach characters are typically too self-conscious to fall into prescriptive genre roles, anyway (at least not without talking about it beforehand). Their friendship is amusingly muddied further by the margins of the movie where Vince seems to sport another, goofier sidekick, played by John Lehr (who briefly formed a comic duo with Baumbach’s little-seen short film “Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation,” included on the Kicking and Screaming Criterion DVD). Dashiell, in Eigeman’s perfectly dismissive tone, practically explains that Stoltz and Jacott can’t have quite the same rapport the guys shared in Kicking and Screaming: “Those friendships that are based on when you were different, younger people can often be debilitating.”
Baumbach characters offer unsparing assessments fairly regularly, even in his earlier, less psychologically fraught comedies. “You start spreading your affection around, it runs thin,” Eigeman’s Max warns in Kicking and Screaming, as part of an explanation of why making new friends is bad, actually. In Highball, Eric Stoltz’s character attends a birthday party thrown by Travis (Christopher Reed). There, he informs another attendee about the host and the guest of honor: “Travis and Felix have known each other since high school. Travis considers Felix his best friend. But the popular consensus is that Felix is difficult.” Diane (Lauren Katz), Travis’ wife, is less tactful: “Felix doesn’t have a personality. Beneath the banal exterior he has is just an asshole.” Travis, cheerfully thick-headed throughout, remains loyal. His marriage to Diane has ups and downs, while he somehow maintains an unwavering belief that “Felix is the man.” He composes a license-skirting birthday song for his friend, and passes out lyric sheets: “Everybody Felix! It’s Felix’s birthday!” (Only Ally Sheedy, playing herself as a friend of a friend, sings along.)
Felix, also played by Carlos Jacott, unveils a more dyspeptic side of male friendship. Hex arrives late to his own party, alternates dismissiveness and outright antagonism, and Irish-goodbyes before any cake is served, much to the relief of everyone except Travis. Jacott’s characters in the first two Baumbach movies have a confessional streak, not because of their emotional openness so much as their inability to keep themselves fully concealed. They confess their neuroses with a sense of resignation: These people are going to find out about me anyway. (Even in the farcical set-up of Mr. Jealousy, Vince reveals little aptitude for deception: When Lester complains about the outlandishly fake English accent Vince adopts in the group therapy session he belatedly joins, Vince unthinkingly offers to try out another one next session.) Felix remains opaque, even when he undergoes a drastic, uncalculated shift later in the film. The largely inexplicable nature of his lopsided (but not quite one-sided) friendship with Travis may be the most realistic thing about the film.
The birthday party is the first of three get-togethers forming the loose structure of Highball, which has the rough textures of a forgotten independent movie shot 20 years earlier than its 1996 production. For the second segment, a slapsticky Halloween celebration, Felix’s character softens slightly, in the sense that he provides some begrudging support for Travis in addition to forcing a 7-year-old to take a sip of alcohol for his own amusement. But the real change comes on New Year’s Eve, when Felix emerges from an unspecified off-screen accident and long-term hospitalization, now soft-spoken and physically unsteady, turning up at Travis and Diane’s five hours early. In earlier segments, Felix clashes especially hard with Philip (Baumbach himself!); he spends much of the New Year’s party sidled up to him, sincerely and awkwardly attempting to bond as if they’re old friends. The unspoken satirical joke: Most of the friends are more unnerved by Felix as a wobbly, goodhearted misfit than they are by any of his genuine social transgressions earlier in the film. It’s especially weird and funny to see Jacott perform opposite his director and co-writer as the faintest trace of needling remains in Felix’s neediness.
All of this, especially Felix’s malleability, has a sketch-comedy quality to it, which doesn’t do anything to diminish Jacott’s remarkable performance. That deep voice, unsmiling visage, and substantial height are such a funny contrast with his meekness in previous films (“Inside I’m little…I’m small,” Otis insists). It becomes vaguely intimidating as Felix wields the kind of cruelty only available to a long-time friend with an inexplicable lifetime pass. Then, when Felix is mysteriously reborn as a gentle giant, Jacott appears downright delicate. Toward the end of Highball, he warbles a karaoke version of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” (also sung in passing during Kicking and Screaming) in an unsteady voice that’s almost Adam Sandler-like, though it does briefly fall back down several octaves for the finish. It’s not the last scene in the movie. At the same time, as its fragile goofiness turns briefly, oddly moving, it becomes the last scene in the movie that matters.
Highball, in Baumbach’s view, remains unfinished, and its abrupt, barely-there ending certainly qualifies even to a dedicated fan of the film who has no idea what, if anything, the filmmakers had in mind instead. I would nonetheless describe it as productively unfinished: In its final moments, most of the early-Baumbach rep company gathers for an inadvertent goodbye, both wistful and weirdly unceremonious in a way that feels true to life. Think of all the friends and acquaintances in your life, and how infrequently you realize that you’re seeing someone for the last time.
Of course, I don’t actually know anything about Baumbach’s personal relationship with these actors, and what few signs available to us indicate that they’re still extant and positive. Carlos Jacott has, in fact, appeared in several of his subsequent films: He has a barely-seen bit part as a driver in The Meyerowitz Stories, and a brief speaking part as a producer on a movie Scarlett Johansson’s character shoots in Marriage Story, memorably and rhetorically asking “why is there always a flirty grip?”
So it would be unfair to describe Jacott, or any of the other Early Baumbach crew, as the old buddies displaced by his friend’s cool new girlfriend, not least because that connotes a kind of meat-headed bros-before-hos defensiveness. The description does make sense, though, if cliches about the restrictiveness of committed relationships can be set aside: My experience of real-life friends’ cool new girlfriends mostly comports with Greta Gerwig’s image as a smart, well-rounded, creative person who also happens to improve her partner’s work.
Gerwig is a terrific filmmaker in her own right who co-wrote Frances Ha and Mistress America with Baumbach. She seems to have helped reoriented his films toward greater empathy, while also, at times, reviving the youthful comic sensibility visible in Kicking and Screaming (and even moments of Highball, though there’s a better-than-decent chance she hasn’t seen it). Meanwhile, the fascinating nastiness of pre-accident Felix, a less nuanced version of the vicious, wounded characters seen in Margot at the Wedding or Greenberg, has been pulled back, sort of like how the meaner, less thoughtful jokes of close high school friends might recede in the presence of long-term partners and/or children. Though there are darkly funny moments in Marriage Story, the most cutting exchanges aren’t really played for laughs.
So to lament that the spirit of Baumbach’s old movies is missing from his later work would be both unfair and inaccurate. Not only does something like Frances Ha share plenty of common ground with Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach has only gotten better as a director, while his skill as a writer of dialogue remains undiminished. The fetishization of earlier work is an irritant to me as a critic and a fan, something I’ve shorthanded as First Album Syndrome: the tendency to mistake the earliest (and often simplest) work of an artist’s career for the best, just because of its perceived immediacy. Just as maddening is the magic-bullet theory that ascribes any brilliant work to some single key factor, often some supposedly inimitable pairing: crediting the freshness of Wes Anderson’s early films to Owen Wilson’s screenplay contributions (or, in another medium, the superiority of Weezer’s first two records to Matt Sharp). So I’m especially disinclined to suggest some harebrained theory of Noah Baumbach originalism about the importance of Carlos Jacott, and the rest of the old gang, to his work.
And yet sometimes you’re still talking about the first Cars album decades after the fact, and maybe loving it more than ever. So here is the insidious nature of First Album Syndrome taking hold in my own brain: Jacott in particular feels like an old friend in these movies, in a way that Driver, Stiller, or Gerwig, great as they all are, and based entirely on when I first saw these movies, never could. Jacott still pops up in movies and on TV, but I don’t see him as often as I’d like, and when I do it’s barely long enough to register my delight. To get a full dose, I have to return to those movies, which take me somewhere else entirely.
Mr. Jealousy transports me back to a time when I might have had an uncomplicated reaction to a Woody Allen pastiche, and even the real thing. Watching Highball, I think of showing it to two different groups of people in two days during a road trip with my best friend, marveling now at the time we then had to waste, wondering when I’ll next see any of those friends unmasked and in person, nevermind how long it might be before we spend more than a few hours together. Kicking and Screaming makes me wonder how I’m still somehow able to see its characters as relatably close to my age and experiences, even as I rapidly approach two decades of remove from college graduation, during which I’ve experienced some genuine failures, not just the bittersweet promise of theoretical ones. On it goes, through my surprise at how having a child has increased the resonance of a pithily self-aware quip from one of Baumbach’s 22-year-olds: “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday.” Is that so different than saying to a 5-year-old, still so much smaller than you: “I remember when you were this big?”
I remember when Carlos Jacott was this big: Always older and taller than I, but still, as Otis says, small. Now, Baumbach’s movies belong to far more people. Even Highball, thanks to its downloadable availability and oddball place in a growing filmography, will get more curiosity watches than it did during my period of most fervent door-to-door evangelizing for it. It will be streamed, then rated and logged on Letterboxd as part of dutiful Noah Baumbach completism, for the same reason that I will eventually watch Brian De Palma’s Redacted. A few viewers will light up at the sight of Jacott’s black-clad surliness and later white-tuxedo warbling, maybe even make him an honorary made-up friend. Most of them will just complain about the shoddy production values, and ignore the way one character obsessively asks celebrities if they know Ric Ocasek. This provides another valuable opportunity to renounce First Album Syndrome, not as a means of swearing off but lamenting its inevitability: More people knowing a band or a filmmaker or an actor doesn’t diminish its value. But it can, somehow, make you feel a little more alone.