Why Care About ‘Greenberg’?

A funny thing happened on my way out of the theatre after seeing “Greenberg,” the latest romantic dramedy from Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding). I knew I didn’t like the movie, but I couldn’t say what exactly I didn’t like about it. As a fan of dramedies, generally, and especially dramedies that eschew standard Hollywood conventions (i.e., are more “realistic”), I probably should have liked, even loved, “Greenberg.”

It’s not as though there weren’t also plenty of reasons to hate “Greenberg.” It stars Ben Stiller, for one. The lead character (Stiller) is neurotic and unlikeable, the supporting characters are the upper-middle-class white flotsam and jetsam you see dragging toddlers through farmer’s markets, the plot is threadbare and the film abounds in the pretentious cultural references that too often pass for humor in independent films.

Still, I wasn’t sure if that was the problem I had with the movie. As one would expect, Ben Stiller doesn’t blow any minds as Roger Greenberg, a 40-year old New York-based slacker and recent victim of a mental breakdown, house-sitting for his much-more-successful brother in the Hollywood Hills. He plays the character we’re all used to seeing from him, a tactless bastard with the self-awareness of a doorstop. Only this time he’s playing it in the sterile confines of Los Angeles’s various white enclaves.

Indeed, the movie falls into line with countless other recent romantic comedies that feature dull white men with nothing to offer being rewarded with the affections of non-descript pretty white girls. In this case, the non-descript pretty white girl is Greta Gerwig, best known as a leading figure in the “mumblecore” movement, a genre as insipid as it is unimportant.

Gerwig plays Florence, Greenberg’s brother’s assistant/nanny who finds herself a rudderless college grad living in a small apartment in one of LA’s gentrifying bohemian neighborhoods. Gerwig’s performance has been applauded by several critics for blurring the line between performance and reality – which is to say, it’s hard to tell if she’s acting. Her Florence is often refreshing, especially in contrast to Stiller’s Greenberg, but I can’t help but wonder if the movie wouldn’t benefit if she didn’t fall for him.

After all, the (possibly failed) love story is at the heart of the film. It would be too conventional, and not befitting the film, to say that Greenberg is “struggling” with the neuroses that compel him to be so vicious toward Florence, who he certainly seems to like. It’s more like he’s let them run rough-shod over his psyche and woe be to all who come close. What’s most upsetting about Greenberg isn’t how obvious his flaws are to the audience, but how hidden they are from the other characters. As insightful as Florence or his old friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), can be, they never get to his core. Which would be a subtle move if Greenberg were played with any subtlety.

Finally, it dawned on me, my problem with the film wasn’t the pathetic characters, depressing locales or the abundance of indie-film cliches. Rather, it was that the film itself is as unaware as its characters. Greenberg cannot see the difference between what he is doing — being a psychotic prick — and what he thinks he is doing — standing up against the phony-ness of the world around him. So too the film cannot see the difference between what it thinks it is doing — portraying an inter-generational love story about two all-too-human human beings, one who has failed in life and another who has purposely avoided trying — and what it is, in fact, doing — portraying the inchoate struggling of two wealthy white people who cannot fail because they do not have to try.

For instance, Greenberg and Ivan haven’t seen eye-to-eye since they were getting out of college (and let us take for granted that they were even able to go to college) and there was major-label interest in their band and Greenberg sank the deal under the weight of his own self-importance, but there he is living comfortably years later. On the other hand, Florence lives comfortably by herself although her skill-set is limited to grocery-shopping and dog-walking. Life is a given for these two characters, yet they genuflect and moan to the heavens as though they’re fighting to exist.

“Greenberg” is a story about moneyed whites mired in inauthenticity — something which they imagine to exist in the absurdity and pretense of the world around them, but which actually suffuses the entire cast of characters.

The film fails in the same way. It imagines itself a beacon of realness in the desolation of the Hollywood Hills, but it is even more dependent on artifice than its setting. (Consider the Chicana/o characters in the background of this film: by and large they are heavy-accented stereotypes acting as sight-gags in the numerous restaurant and crowd scenes. It is as though the film requires the cartoonishness of non-whites to make the inauthentic white leads seem realistic.)

But maybe this is the lesson to be learned leaving “Greenberg.” Perfect understanding, my own or the characters’, isn’t always the panacea we imagine it to be.