Greenberg (2010, Noah Baumbach)


This makes three times in a row that I’ve departed a Noah Baumbach film being unsure of the mechanics of why I was deeply affected but knowing beyond doubt that I was, and that I’d just been witness to a brilliant piece of storytelling and characterization. It’s frequently been pointed out that Baumbach zeroes in on immensely unlikable characters and then permits us to know them startlingly well. Two things about this: one is that he sees these people and their lives, correctly, as complex, and means for us to become wrapped up in their intricacies; it’s reductive to simply think of them as unlikable. Secondly, lots of people are unlikable — and yet we’re still able to share a universal empathy for them, or we do our best to do so. What’s remarkable about Greenberg is how it achieves that empathy with such withering precision until our hearts are completely reaching out to the title character… and just as importantly, we get the sense that the movie’s own warmth is extending outward to him as well.

Greenberg is an act of love, then, toward a self-consciously fucked up man who consistently fails to take the feelings of others into account. We’ve given evidence that he has a history of this, and we witness firsthand various awful behaviors toward people attempting to treat him well, uncaring moments toward kind people, and falling-outs with those who’ve stuck by him for decades — and always, yet, with just enough of a wink to know that he knows he should be better than this, that he’s trying. As imagined by Baumbach and actor Ben Stiller for this vivid and lyrical character study, Roger Greenberg is one of the most painfully believable characters in modern motion pictures. He frustrates us to no end, even maddens us, and we are flooded with the desire to set him right and by extension move his once-promising life back into motion.

That impulse is shared by Greta Gerwig, playing merely a mildly messed-up but sweet and witty young woman working as the housekeeping assistant to Roger’s brother. Roger housesits during a lengthy vacation and spends the time trying to recoup after a stay in a mental institution, an engagement that results in an awkward romance between the two of them, with Gerwig’s Florence just as aware as we are that there is something wonderful at Roger’s core that she wants to dig through the bullshit to find. It’d be so easy for all this to be cheap and embittered in the manner of so many modern comedies about adult children like Roger, but it isn’t. In my internet travels I’ve run across so many people like Greenberg whose loneliness and social awkwardness hide a subversive wit and warmth they can find no way to express, and Baumbach’s film chooses to reach down for that full-hearted promise instead of dwelling on insecurities and mocking the sort of person who’d likely spend an awful lot of his time being mocked, from birth to old age.

Title aside, Florence is really the central character of the film; we begin with an examination of her life and the emotional cycle of her film matches her own, infallibly patient perspective upon Roger, which is marked by an almost saintly depth of understanding that in some contexts might seem too good to be true, especially for an often unfeeling oaf like Roger. But in fact, Florence’s desire to live is set up brilliantly as nothing more than the open-heartedness of the best of us; it might seem too on the nose when she metaphorically wonders aloud “are you going to let me in?” while merging in traffic during the opening credits. But in truth, her sense of life and curiosity mask an need to be validated and understood as much as Roger’s outward obnoxiousness hide his own capability to love and be loved. Greenberg is ultimately about peeling away these masks and self-image idealizations until we find something as real as the voicemail message and nonchalant act of kindness that quietly drive the climax of the film.

If you’ve avoided the film because you’ve been put off by Baumbach’s prior efforts, this might not mean much to you, but I do feel it’s the most likable of his last three movies, all of which are densely layered and detailed enough to be novels, a highly unusual feature for American comedy of any era. Only James L. Brooks has managed so beautifully to make us care deeply for often highly unpleasant people. On the other hand, if you’ve avoided the movie because, like me, you don’t care for Ben Stiller, then see it immediately. Stiller is brilliant, believable, and gigantic in this role, and hits all the right notes in everything Baumbach throws at him, from bored “hanging out” to angry overreactions to blank cluelessness to generational ranting to coke-addled rambunctiousness — he is unceasingly real, hilarious, and full of sensitivity to the complexities of the man he’s playing. Drop everything else and think of Greenberg as something as simple as a love story: about people who don’t know how to relate to other people in classicist movie-terms, much less real-world terms, finding each other in the overrun forest of human communication. Baumbach’s script and film are structured perfectly, its mounting anxieties and problems gradually overtaken by a sense of profound ease, like it’s all going to be all right or something. I felt devastated and lost at the end of The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. I was still overwhelmed after Greenberg — and its dialogue and vivid characters have returned to me again and again in the last week — but more than anything else, after its perfect cut to black I just felt like cheering.

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