Directed by Noah Baumbach
‘Due to an extraordinarily high number of complaints about Greenberg, we must limit refunds to an hour past the start time of the film so business operations are not hindered.” This message was taped to a box-office window; a photo of it was sent to the movie blogger Jeffrey Wells, who ran it on his site. Greenberg is the latest intimate drama from writer-director Noam Baumbach, whose autobiographical film about the divorce of his parents, The Squid and the Whale, is among the highlights of American moviemaking over the past decade.
Greenberg, which shares with The Squid and the Whale a wholly original satirical contempt for exactly the sort of pretentiousness one has come to expect from American independent film, is a brilliant and many-layered piece of work. But for many (probably most) people, this unvarnished portrait of a 40-year-old loser/narcissist and an affectless 26-year-old girl whom he repeatedly takes up and discards will be the cinematic equivalent of listening to a fingernail dragging on a chalkboard for 90 minutes. And for those moviegoers drawn to the theater because the eponymous protagonist is played by the mainstream comedy star Ben Stiller, Greenberg must certainly come as a repellent shock from which an angry exit of the sort anticipated by the multiplex manager quoted above would seem the only rational response.
It might even be the response of Greenberg himself, who is in the habit of writing enraged letters to businesses and institutions that do not live up to his exacting standards. Greenberg is about a man who has constructed an airtight series of rationalizations for his unending string of failures; the fault always lies elsewhere, with the imperfections of the world around him, the hypocrisies and idiocies of other people, the inability of Starbucks and American Airlines and Hollywood Pet Taxi to deliver the level of service he expects. We’ve all known a person, or have been related to a person, like Roger Greenberg. There can be something entrancing about such uncompromising negativity, at least until the point at which it becomes intolerable.
Greenberg was once an up-and-coming rock musician before he scuttled his band’s record deal. The label supposedly wanted him to do things that would have violated his integrity—a move that ended not only his own burgeoning career, but also that of his wounded best friend (Rhys Ifans), who has become a computer tech. We can intuit that the 15 years between Greenberg’s decision and the moment we first encounter him as a 40-year-old recently released from a mental hospital, house-sitting for his successful brother in Los Angeles, have been calamitous. He has taken up work as a carpenter, but complains that sharing space with three other wood workers at a space in the ramshackle Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick is “very political.” The L.A. native is no longer able to drive and has a panic attack attempting to swim across his brother’s pool. He walks the sun-drenched streets of West Hollywood in long sleeves and a winter jacket.
His brother has a competent, responsible, and oddly unformed assistant named Florence (Greta Gerwig), a pretty girl uncomfortable in her own skin who longs for connection and will take it any way she can get it. Having just been dumped by a long-term boyfriend, she meets a guy at a “gallery thing” and tells him she doesn’t want to jump into another relationship. “This isn’t a relationship,” he tells her, and she goes to bed with him.
Then she meets Greenberg, who simply advances on her one evening because he’s lonely and doesn’t have anyone else to hang out with. There follows one of the more painful—and truthful—portraits of a neurotic courtship ever put on film, along with two sex scenes that are so entirely the opposite of erotic they must be the proximate cause of the walkouts that caused the theater manager to put up that sign.
She can barely get out a coherent sentence, and seems to have few interests, but she has an open and tolerant heart. Later, groggy from anesthetic, Florence tells Greenberg, “You like me so much more than you think you do.” She has that exactly right; the drama here is whether Greenberg’s soul has so withered that he can no longer recognize this life preserver in human form.
Greenberg is not in any way a misanthropic film; rather, it is an unsentimental critical portrait of a certain type of misanthrope. As such, it is close to flawless. But the movie might, like Greenberg himself, be a little too full of its own integrity. In subjecting Florence to a painful degree of embarrassment and humiliation at Greenberg’s hands, writer-director Baumbach is, in effect, subjecting the audience to them, too. People are used to witnessing embarrassment and humiliation in a Ben Stiller movie, but that’s because Stiller’s specialty is playing Job for comedic purposes and suffering untold agonies for our amusement.
In Greenberg, Noah Baumbach turns the tables by making Stiller the cause of another’s pain: a young woman who deserves better but doesn’t seem to know she does. Baumbach’s reversal, and Stiller’s genuinely fearless performance, makes for a far more original and valuable movie than most of his other fare. Still, it’s no wonder people hate Greenberg so much.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.