posted/written by caroline picard
Greenberg is an interesting next step in Noah Baumbak’s collection of films. The movie centers around Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) who suffered a mental breakdown in New York, where he works as a carpenter, and consequently moved out to LA to live in his brother’s house. Meantime his brother’s family is away on holiday. Greenberg grew up in LA, was in a band in LA and spends the duration of the film re-connecting with friends from his past, while pursuing a fraught and half-hearted romance with the family nanny/personal assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig). Greenberg is doomed to fail from the start, in so far as it is a movie about a man who is incapable, depressed, self-loathing and self-obsessed. In other words, it is intended to fail because it is about a flailing character who’s troubles stem from his inability to empathize, or step beyond his own, relatively boring preoccupations. What happens, then, is that the supporting characters, former alcoholic and near divorcé Ivan Shrank (Rhys Ifans) and 20-something Gerwig are significantly more interesting. Their lives illustrate a myriad of challenges as Gerwig struggles through the post-college confusion, fraught with a desire to please and Shrank tries to whether a storm in his marriage while also raising a son. And that’s the film, more or less. Greenberg connects more with 20 year-old than people his own age, living more in the past than the present.
While the film might not be one of Baumbak’s strongest movies, it further develops his seeming obsession with the narcissistic personality (particularly the parent). Think of The Squid and The Whale, or Margot at the Wedding–even The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox. In each of those films the main parental figures endanger their closest dependents with an unconscious self-absorption. I’d agree that Fantastic Mr. Fox is the benevolent counterpart in the equation, but that is more due to the outcome of the film, the delightful caricatures of Boggis and Bunts and Bean and, the ingenious world of animals. The very premise of that same film is that Mr. Fox is unable to stop hunting, despite the way in which it endangers his community. Again, I realize that the story is not really about that, but I do feel it resonates with themes in Baumbak’s other films. Further, his ongoing collaboration with Wes Anderson makes sense in this same regard, for Anderson seems fascinated with the absent-minded self-obsession that motivates people through relationships.
The early Kicking and Screaming is the farthest removed. It focuses on the college graduate, kids who don’t want to step beyond their college environment, their inside jokes, their shared sense of greatness. While this film might seem the weakest link in my argument, I’d suggest that it is nevertheless the beginning. The community he depicts is insulated, a click, involved in themselves, hesitant if not incapable of stepping out of that self-involvement to new possibilities. If one were to think of the Ben Stiller/Greenberg character in this environment, it’s likely that his crippling self-involvedness would show up as nothing more than an idiosyncratic, ironic and laughable tick. It would be buffered by the community of friends he inhabits. In this world of college, there is a little real consequence, and thus, nothing at stake exactly–beyond a sense that there is probably more to life than beer and sex on dorm room beds.
Squid and the Whale, meantime, shows a later development. The scene I always remember takes place between Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney). They play tennis with their two sons on either side and after the son almost hits Linney with a tennis ball, Daniels (the father/husband) does hit her, hard and deliberately. To me, this film spoke to the accidental and inherent idealization of the parent by the child–what occurs between the eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg) Walt Berkman and father Jeff Daniels, as it also happens between the youngest son Frank Berkman (Owen Kline), and mother Laura Linney. The movie is as much an examination of the way families can deteriorate as it is about the realization of a parent’s flaws by the children who venerate them.
The last film I wanted to mention is Margot at the Wedding, which demonstrates a further step–i.e. what happens when the family has already collapsed, when the young child (in this case a son) has no other means of support and security outside of the manipulative mother figure–he serves her, adulates her, seeks to please her again and again, to be good in her eyes. As one outside of the frame, the portrait Baumbak reveals is unsettling, perverse even, as the unequal inter-dependency is fleshed out in all its ways so that by the end, you can’t tell if you want Margot (Nicole Kidman) to abandon her son on the bus, or if you’re relieved that she changed her mind at the last-minute.
The progression that came into focus once I saw Greenberg was the narrowing view of the narcissist and his or her impact on the world. The college kids are accidentally narcissistic, acting out a stage that one grows out of, a stage that is shared collectively. Squid and The Whale shows the impact of narcissistic parents with children. Margot at the Wedding shows that relationship between the narcissistic mother and the doting son. And then. The final step, it would seem, in the experiment, what happens when you just focus on the narcissist? You get Greenberg. There seems to be real promise in the fact that those peripheral characters are so much more interesting–they show a new step to take, a step beyond the examination of self-centeredness. That’s not to say Baumbak will take that step, but I feel like whatever step he does take has the potential to be very interesting in so far as his study of the neurotic, manipulative, self-involved individual seems complete. The resulting portrait is pathetic, impotent. The solipsistic world-view of that character collapses, as the eye of the viewer is un-compelled by that world-view, fascinated instead by the life and curiosity of other character’s less-selfish struggles.
I can’t help but hope that a new step might be taken–Wes Anderson’s films show a similar study through a different light, similarly one can think of Garden State, or Running with Scissors–there is a deep interest in the banal train wreck of that insatiable central character, the parent absent because of his or her own preoccupation with themselves, the insipid manipulations and machinations of their personality–I want to draw a connection between that and the climate of America, the widespread abundance of our first-world lifestyle combined with an insatiable appetite for more new things, even the characteristic “the world is your oyster” attitude that so many schools want to impart on its youth. Obviously everyone wants the world to be his or her oyster, and yet without responsibility there is no purpose, without opportunities to share, there is no value in prosperity. Again, let’s study those peripheral characters, let’s follow the color their bring to Greenberg’s lonely little world. There might be a clue there. Something to follow to get beyond the self self self.