Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Story: Noah Baumbach & Jennifer Jason Leigh
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rhys Ifans
Duration: 107 min
More than just a known commodity, the films of Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and now, Greenberg) are an acquired taste. They capture with startling candor life unrehearsed without the benefit of selective memory. There is no safety net for these characters by a merciful writer, their struggles for dignity are lonely (though inevitably comical) affairs. Firmly planted in the theater of the absurd, the Baumbach universe is made to agitate.
Roger Greenberg’s life is a one act play: the not-quite Jew, the bundle of neuroses who refuses to be identified with his stint in a mental hospital, who breaks even the Larry David/Woody Allen mold of comedic curmudgeon, as someone not quite of either coastal city, but of both and back, and of course, my favorite, the lone pedestrian in a city of cars. The stage is set for complexity, but it is ultimately in the minutiae of Roger’s strained attempts to belong, the performance of Ben Stiller and the gracelessness of the dialogue that supersede the premise.
After a nervous breakdown in New York, Roger comes to housesit his brother’s home in Los Angeles. This is the real Los Angeles, not the beach or the modernist cliff mansion, but the sprawling, smog-ridden kitsch wasteland that strips away the mystique and becomes a suitable adversary to Roger’s want of sincerity. Shortly upon his arrival he encounters his brother’s assistant, Florence Marr, and the two kick-off one of the strangest romantic courtships ever captured on celluloid. Unlike Garden State, where love interests of relative quirkiness are paired together in ways that solely accentuate said quirks, the relationship that develops between Roger and Florence is something like a mating dance of the life-incapable, it is actually in its own way kind of beautiful in its start-stop aimlessness. Florence (played magnificently by Greta Gerwig) is more than a romantic foil, her self-proclaimed geekiness bodes an unflappable counter-balance to the Roger’s flawed ego; neither a feminist icon nor an object of desire, Florence walks her own walk as a similarly vulnerable co-conspirator of this unspecified relationship. Lesser films habitually build characters from plot and thematic needs downwards, here characters seem to act first, without fine definitions of what their actions mean even to each other. An apt comparison is the romance of Punch-Drunk Love; however, as with all of Baumbach’s stories, the character studies of Greenberg are given ample time to stew in their own juices, unburdened by conceits of plot.
At the core of the love story and of Roger’s struggle for meaning to life is a generational divide, the world has moved on. In his early forties now, the best years of life seemingly behind him, he exists like a tourist to this sham culture, writing longhand letters of grievance to corporate and political bodies, resistant to the change happening around him. Roger, and indeed the ethos of the film, is steeped in Generation X disillusionment. This point of contention is played upon further within the context of the story itself, by having Roger’s love interest far younger than him, part of the Generation Y more resilient, more adaptable generation to the culture of acceleration surrounding them. Yet both fumble towards common ground in a way that speaks of their mutual sincerity, wading through the baggage and the bullshit that each has built up to cope with this impersonal environment. The sincere ones are thin-skinned, they don’t behave like the social predators that populate reality tv programs or, as Roger puts it in one scene, the mean and overconfident sophomores that are made for this world, the characters of Greenberg are poor pretenders and want of something more.
Those who would feign a professional distance in the writing of their reviews and consciously or unconsciously desire an arbitrary clarity to structural elements of the narrative or character development will, of course, be left disappointed with Greenberg. They also would be full of shit; the people that Greenberg writes letters to. The existential challenge of Baumbach films provide, to my mind, a useful litmus test as to the temperament of the person reviewing, like Hamlet’s Mousetrap, how you respond says more about how you live your life. I apologize for bringing you into this, but I have read through one too many misreads of Greenberg that, like the protagonist, I would like to embrace my inner-jerk and be frank: if you don’t get Greenberg, you are part of the problem.
I do not care if Greenberg is enjoyable in the conventional sense, I do not care whether it meanders about without going much of anywhere plot-wise, I do not care if it is repetitious or redundant in the Baumbach canon, and I especially do not care that characters in the film are sometimes unlikeable. What attracts me to this film is that, filmic interests aside, Greenberg speaks to me on a human level – in its unedited blemishes I see the world I inhabit, and I welcome all the unpleasant emotions it dredges up. Like Florence, I am drawn to the messy honesty that Roger Greenberg embodies, it just so happens the film itself embodies this same ethos.
Greenberg, like Noah Baumbach’s other films, is for people that find comfort from being sad. The more refined the depiction of the absurdities of life, the more this part of my psychosis gives in to the experience. I do not need character development and thematic profundity, just being there in a sincere way as a cipher for these sentiments, is good enough; there is value in just being.