Thanks to the narcissism of its central character, who is 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 that program, once a refreshing dose of bile and misanthropy, degenerated into a formula after the first season or two, and now each episode seems entirely predictable. Greenberg, on the other hand, which locks us in with the point of view of its disagreeable protagonist, is guaranteed to set one’s teeth on edge. Played with furious intensity by a transformed Ben Stiller, he 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, when they were on the verge of a recording contract, 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 25-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 effect 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. Yet Baumbach manages to make something of a May-September romance out of this seemingly intractable material. How does he manage to pull if off?
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 actually connect, against all odds. 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 outrider, 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 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 teen-age 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 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 commercial specialty and the physical freedom and loose indie improvisation that marked Gerwig’s earlier, so-called “mumblecore” films.
Great success breeds confidence but 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, the roles they have already played, showing layers of feeling not previously exposed. 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 gnawing anxiety, the empathetic sense of dysfunction and insecurity that made him an artist in the first place.