Thanks to the narcissism of its central character, at once insecure and aggressive, there could hardly be a more cringe-inducing current film than Noah Baumbach?s relentless Greenberg. Roger Greenberg?s only rival at saying gauche or obnoxious things to anyone in almost any situation is the character played by Larry David in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. But while Curb Your Enthusiasm?s once refreshing dose of bile and misanthropy has now degenerated into predictable formula, Greenberg, on the other hand, is guaranteed to set one?s teeth on edge.
Played with furious intensity by a transformed Ben Stiller, Greenberg is plaintively vulnerable one moment, then strikes out furiously the next, especially when someone is being nice to him. He?s in from New York, staying at his brother?s home in L.A. while recovering from a breakdown. He tries with little luck to reconnect with close friends from a band he helped break up fifteen years earlier, but he spends much of his time writing letters of complaint to companies (like airlines) whose services have disappointed him. Afflicted with at least a mild form of O.C.D., he?s the Moses Herzog of consumerism?the spoiled idealist or perfectionist turned crank.
Roger?s brother and family are off in Vietnam, leaving behind only a dog, the one creature for whom he feels any spontaneous affection, and his brother?s ?personal assistant,? played by Greta Gerwig, a gentle, slightly confused twenty-five-year old, whose life since college has been going nowhere. Recovering from a series of relationships little more than sexual, she is drawn to Roger, though he is fifteen years older, in part because she is a natural caregiver and he seems far more wounded than she is. But Roger is incapable of letting anyone get close to him. He is caught up in himself in a way that prevents him from gauging the effects of his words or deeds on people around him. But no sooner does he repel her than he tries again to make contact, often in the most gauche ways imaginable. Baumbach manages to make something of a May-September romance out of this seemingly intractable material, and the question is how.
The logic of romantic comedy, going back to the screwball films and Astaire-Rogers musicals of the 1930s, is to put every possible obstacle between two people who, though very different, perhaps even at each other?s throats, seem destined for each other from the beginning, though they are the last to know it. There?s only a glimmering hope of such an outcome at the end of Greenberg, a hint that Stiller and Gerwig may, against all odds, actually connect.
But the real key to Greenberg is the other genre to which it loosely belongs, the kind of neurotic Jewish comedy that survives tenuously in stand-up but seemed otherwise to have died with Seinfeld and with middle-period Woody Allen. This sense of not really belonging, of being an awkward outsider, barely tolerated, is where Noah Baumbach?s work comes from. Like Allen he writes comic sketches for the New Yorker, and his first films?Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Mr. Jealousy (1997)?were charming pseudo-intellectual talkfests of post-collegiate angst. They followed in the footsteps not only of Woody Allen but also of Whit Stillman?s similar portrayals of the aimless young, sub-category Wasp, in Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994).
But in his most celebrated film, The Squid and the Whale (2005), Baumbach graduated to a story much closer to the emotional bone, a largely autobiographical account of the effect of infidelity, separation, and divorce on two teenage boys. Just as Allen had moved from outright humor to the mature emotions of Annie Hall and Manhattan, and later the even more serious Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives, Baumbach has developed the neurotic, self-lacerating side of New York humor while leaving the humor itself behind.
Unable to drive, barely able to swim, carrying groceries by hand from the local supermarket, Greenberg feels stranded in L.A. like some of Allen?s characters before him. He gazes down at the backyard pool as an alien body of water and glares at the young whose musical culture and sexual mores know nothing of his. Baumbach himself–who, like Greenberg, is 40–may be feeling the same concern about the next movie generation, wondering if he has already been left behind, a fear that may be conveyed in the improbable romance between Stiller and Gerwig, between the comedy of humiliation that has become Stiller?s great commercial specialty and the physical freedom and loose indie improvisation that marked Gerwig?s earlier, so-called ?mumblecore? films.
Great success sometimes causes artists to lose touch with their roots. But in Greenberg, Baumbach offers both Stiller and Gerwig a gift: an archaeological deepening of their film identities that shows the layers of feeling not previously exposed in their previous roles. And he provides himself with a comparable gift, for he has become our most accomplished and acclaimed younger director without losing touch with the inner nerd, the creative anxiety, the empathetic sense of dysfunction and insecurity that made him an artist in the first place.
(Photo: Film In Focus / Wilson Webb)