Many people who watch Noah Baumbach's latest film Greenberg feel that the title character is so unlikable, that the film fails due to its protagonist's personality. In fact, Baumbach presents us with a challenge, much like he did with 2007's Margot at the Wedding. Greenberg is not likable. He is narcissistic, misanthropic, brutally honest, and cynical and unaware of anyone's feelings outside of his own, which are more important than yours by the way. He also hates on L.A culture to the point where I think he is drawn to it for the verbal ammunition it gives him.However, Baumbach manages to balance these traits with a humanization that is painfully acute and accurate, by showing us what it is like to be Greenberg. Many people are not going to want to know what it's like to be Greenberg. That's fine; because Baumbach did not make this film for everyone.
Something very interesting and smart that the director does is starting the film from Florence's (Greta Gerwig) perspective. Florence is Roger Greenberg's (Ben Stiller) brother's assistant. His brother and family are going away on vacation to Vietnam and Greenberg comes to his brother's house in L.A to stay after living in New York City and coming off of a recent stint in a mental hospital. While Greenberg is the main character, the film starts with Florence and we are shown in a brief period of time what her life is like. She has a best friend named Gina, she is a good and hard working assistant and she goes to a bar where she eventually has a one night stand which is clearly irregular and dissatisfying for her. She is awkward; certainly not someone who asserts herself around others. She is not meek though; she is just not quite sure of herself as an individual yet. By aligning us with Florence, an easily relatable character right from the beginning, Baumbach is able to balance her with Greenberg's own inadequacies and allows Florence to be more than just the "girl". She becomes a character in her own right, just as important to the story through Baumbach's use of her in the film's first scenes.
Once we are introduced to Greenberg, Florence only recieves a few more scenes to herself because after all, this is a story about Roger Greenberg first and foremost. However, the focus on her perspective is never lost, keeping the examination of her character in check throughout the film. Greenberg is a carpenter now, not what he planned for his life but he does the job. While in L.A though, he has decided to experimentally do nothing. He attempts to reconnect with his best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) who is going through a trial separation. Ivan's character parallels Greenberg in the many ways in which they differ. We learn that he and Ivan used to have a band called The Magic Marker with a couple of others, that they were offered a record deal and that Roger turned down without consulting the rest of the group drastically altering the lives of the other group members involuntarily. He did not want to sign with a major label because he felt they would become corporate slaves. The problem is that this was the only offer the band received leading to the band's brake up prompting Greenberg's move to New York shortly after. He and Ivan have never discussed any of this and while Ivan genuinely enjoys seeing Greenberg again, he also has a difficult time with it which we see through his increasing reluctance towards Greenberg every time they see each other. These scenes between the two of them are show so much about the passage of time (a major theme in the film) and display Greenberg's inability to look outside of his own world. Ivan wants a friend to talk to but all Roger can say is that he is happy that Ivan is splitting from his wife as he never liked them together in the first place. He cannot understand why Ivan is so upset about the speration even though Ivan is clearly distraught over the effect this will have on his son Victor.
One of the more fascinating things about Greenberg is the grudge he has about his own generation for not being the current generation and the absolute disdain he has for the current generation for simply existing. All he sees are kids that rely too much on technology and have lost a grip on the world. He sees kids who are lost and are incapable of asserting themselves as a culturally relevant and thoughtful crowd. Not to mention that his references go over their heads. One review of the film remarks on the climactic party scene in which he takes coke and rants about his disgust for the present youth. The review notes that the scene does not give the kids a chance, making them voiceless and stupid citing unfairness and offense that the youth of today are portrayed as such a hopeless bunch. This reviewer misses the point entirely. This film is not about presenting us with fair portrayals of youth culture. It is about getting into Greenberg's head and seeing people as he sees them. These kids are not meant to represent youth culture; they are meant to represent how Greenberg sees youth culture. The scene is a brilliant one, rife with tension in a situation that would not normally carry it.
Greenberg's relationship with Florence could be the most frustrating aspect of the film for some but also the most rewarding. Mainly because of the way he treats her. While his mind bounces back and forth as to whether or not he wants to be with this person even casually, he drags Florence through every single back and forth moment he has, instead of keeping it to himself. He then proceeds to blame Florence for his feelings, telling her that everything he is conflicted about is her fault. His mood changes drastically within individual scenes with her. Florence, in the meantime, likes him a lot but is conflicted about him both because of his behavior and also having just come out of a long relationship. She also excuses a lot fo his behaviour because she knows about his stay in the hospital. Her best friend Gina, does not want her with him because of the way he treats her. Having also read complaints that Florence ends up simply catering to Greenberg's needs and is a weak character, there is a scene to counter that claim between Florence and Gina as we hear why Florence refuses to lose interest in him. She explains her choices and Greenberg is humanized enough for us to see why Florence makes the decisions she does. In addition to this, Florence has a breaking point proving she is not a character that can be constantlyy trampled on. This displays in part why Florence is not a weak character but an individual making a personal choice for better or worse.
The scene where Florence tells a story could be the most awkward, tense and hateful moment of Greenberg's behavior. Without going too much into it, as those who have seen it will know exactly what this refers to, it really shows Roger's impatience with others and how short a string his dissatisfaction with a conversation has. It is probably the moment people will hate Greenberg that most; at least it was for me. As for my reaction, it was the one moment that I said out loud in the theater "Oh my God". An overreaction? Probably, but it was a really surprising turn to a scene that started out on such good terms.
Greenberg's rare but genuine attempts at reconnection contribute to his humanization. His most desperate attempt to reconnect comes from his efforts at striking up a friendship and possible relationship with Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an ex-girlfriend who he is clearly still thinks about. She has been through so much, a husband, kids and an impending divorce, that for her the relationship does not even feel like it happened. Her indifference towards him perfectly captures his mourning and hatred towards time and the things it can blur, distance and effect in so many ways as if nothing ever even happened. He really does try with her but it does not work and the scene with the two of them in the restaurant is painful to watch (there are a lot of painful scenes in this) as he talks to her about moments and days between the two of them which she cannot recall and does not seem to care to attempt to.
This is without a doubt Ben Stiller's best performance; a role that he was born to play (picturing anyone else playing Roger is impossible). He is stripped of extravagance and is not afraid to make Greenberg as unlikable as the script portrays him and succeeds beautifully in all the moments that Baumbach gives him to deepen the character, get in his head and show us through his face the pain, awkwardness and trouble he has functioning in society. Greta Gerwig is a real find. This is her first foray into the mainstream after being a hugely relevant contributor to the mumblecore movement. Last year she memorably played best friend Megan in Ti West's The House of the Devil and she has a rich career ahead of her. She is just as interesting to watch as Stiller and both actors make us understand why their characters do the things they do largely contributing to the film's success We may not approve but we understand. The two also have a great deal of what many on screen pairs fail to these days; chemistry. On a final note concerning the performances, Rhys Ifans is so good in this that by the end I wanted an entire film dedicated to Ivan as it becomes so evident that his story is merely touched upon.
Baumbach's direction is at turns observational and subjective. There are times when he takes a step back to let us see what Greenberg's interactions are really like, objectively letting us observe the negative effect and impact he has on other people. This allows us to view his current place in the world and to fully see why his cold and hateful behavior is not accepted in most social circles. Baumbach performs a balancing act with this and scenes where we are subjectively let inside of Greenberg's mind and shown exactly what he goes through in a social situation and how he sees everyone else. The scene that perfectly captures this is the first party scene in which Ivan and Roger attend a birthday party for one of their friends' children. Baumbach inserts a montage with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem's score pervading in the background, competing in the audio track with the dialogue taking place combined with quick non-linear cuts and portions of various conversations Greenberg has at the party. All of it equals an entirely overwhelming montage in the constant awkwardness of Greenberg's complete misfire in every encounter he has and the techniques that Baumbach employs through his use of editing and audio overload. He perfectly conveys Greenberg's subjective experience in social situations and through the effect this scene has on the viewer, we feel the way he feels involuntarily aligning us with the protagonist. The scene culminates in a stunning moment with an extended overhead shot of Greenberg alone but surrounded by children running around and adults stationed in stable conversation. He is lost, confused and unsuccessful in his attempt to function at this party through a combination of his own coldness towards others and his genuine discomfort with them.
We have come to the personal part of this review. Noah Baumbach is, for me, in the top tier of working directors and screenwriters not only in his own scripts but in his contribution to two Wes Anderson films. I adore every work of his because of his courage in the characters he writes and the way he challenges his audience to really dig deep into his examinations of upper middle class angst as he relentlessly enforces the validity of his characters' feelings. He knows that not everyone is going to relate to them and furthermore he knows that many are going to actively invalidate their plights through personal assertion. There is nothing wrong with this. Just because his characters can be difficult to relate to does not mean that they do not deserve to have their stories told. Films that are challenging in this regard are refreshing to me and much more interesting than the majority of work out there. He makes his characters ugly but valid and fully realized.
That is why I love Margot at the Wedding so much. Margot was refreshing for me personally because of how brutally unlikable she is. There is a difference between brutally unlikable and brutally uninteresting. In many writer's but more often studios' attempts to create easily marketable and relatable characters the result is many times a dull and redundant story. I am surprised by how many found Greenberg to be so completely intolerable considering that not only does the character grow by the end of the film but also because this film is so much more accessible in my opinion than Margot. Also, while Florence's actions might be questionable in her unwillingness to give up on Roger at times when you may want her to, she is very easily likable not to mention Ivan who is extremely easy to attach to.
I guess I am so deeply fond of it because Greenberg felt disturbingly relatable. Reviewers have referred to his character as a monster which is completely pushing the line. I find it interesting that people are much more inclined to accept the actions of characters that kill people in films before they can accept a character like Roger Greenberg. Greenberg is unlikable. He is stuck in a largely middle-aged conundrum; as Ivan (Rhys Ifans) talks about late in the film, he is incapable of embracing the fact that his life has not turned out as he planned, a problem which taken on its own should be relatable to many. His misanthropy and his disconnect from society and all of the things that make him so hateful to many others felt familiar to me in my own feelings, especially in his disconnect with the current generation which would be my own. Obviously my feelings are not nearly as generalized or unwavering as it is for him but I felt a connection with him to the point where by the end of the film I truly loved this character and outside of much of his treatment of Florence and Ivan, I cannot say his actions upset me all that much. I never approved of them but I was more fascinated by his actions than pissed off.
Greenberg's ability to openly show his disdain for everything, which is what turns so many people off from him, is an aspect I cannot relate to. However, in relation to my own thoughts at times, yes I do relate to some of the things he says. His experience in social situations feels eerily familiar. His concerns about middle aged life and the way he so fully feels the passage of time is something that I relate to in my youth which is just a little terrifying. Throughout the film all I kept thinking was that this film was not made for people my age; so why do I understand everything he is going through even if I do not relate to the way he goes about dealing with his issues. The film, which is alternately and much of the time simultaneously very funny and also very depressing felt relatable and true to me. While I am not at the age to fully understand that passage of time, opportunity and examination of self growth I felt a very strong connection making me one of the many that truly loved this film.
If everyone liked Greenberg the film would not be successful because that would mean that Baumbach had not stayed true to his title character. Greenberg will alienate some and unite others but through portraying a character fully and deeply on both the director's and the character's own terms whether or not people relate to it or sympathize with his plight enough to care about the film makes this a unique, brave and acutely observational character study that will be hated by many and cherished by many for years to come.