Sunday, April 25, 2010

"The men are dressed like children; the kids are dressed like superheroes": GREENBERG

Finally saw GREENBERG last night at one of the last theaters playing it in Chicago. It was a well-done movie, that really mined the awkwardness of situations and the problems of the characters for laughs. It might make you hate people for a little afterwards, however. I wonder how Noah Baumbach can still be so misanthropic after having married a woman like Jennifer Jason Leigh. But considering she is credited on the story, maybe it's like that 30 Rock episode where Tina Fey and a popular, handsome guy who asks her out find they share the same withering misanthropy for the human race (genders reversed, in this case, I assume).*

Tim Brayton (whose wonderful Antagony & Ecstasy I have already added to my blogroll) does a much better dissection of the film qua film than I could. So I'll use this post to address a few points he raises in his review.

Tim doubts that we can really like Ben Stiller's title character, that we can really only feel sorry for him. And yes, I mostly agree. Roger Greenberg is excellent at sucker-punching everyone when they let their guard down. There's a rather brilliant moment where, one second after he finally says something nice to his best (perhaps only) friend (played by Rhys Ifans)**, he asks for Ifans to tell him every criticism he's heard about Roger.

The thing is, I had a hard time not feeling empathy (which is a little deeper than pity) for Roger at a few moments. One of them was when his brother starts ripping him apart over the phone because the dog got sick  while Roger is house-sitting. His brother lays into him in such a way to suggest a person pissed off at an incredibly bad employee, not your flesh-and-blood. His brother laments the fact that his dog is sick and he can't be there because he's on vacation. He's not concerned about Roger, who was just released from a mental institution and has been abandoned in an empty house while his family is a country away... by their OWN CHOICE! Which might be an understandable reaction to Roger, but still, to feel less loved than your family dog would really, truly suck.

The other moment was towards the end, when Ifan's character calls Roger on all his shit, including ruining their band's one shot at a career. And Roger says that he knows he screwed it all up, but he never thought the whole band was going to make the call based on HIS decision. He made a really bad decision, that he didn't know the scope of when he was just out of college, and he's been carrying around the blame for that ever since.

As for what GREENBERG's about,  I think it's as much a state of the union and/or eulogy for Generation X as a character study. The casting of Ben Stiller certainly plays into this, given his own significant role as filmic stand-in for Gen Xers (Reality Bites, the Ben Stiller Show, etc.). Greenberg's attitudes towards authenticity & irony, his use of comedy to tear apart other people, his own self-seriousness in contrast to his mocking views of everyone else, all seem very specific (though not exclusive) to Generation X. He's even lived out the rejectionist ethos that Chuck Klosterman identified in his essay on Empire Strikes Back, which he suggests represented every X-ers' desire to not become their parents. Unfortunately, living that life out sucks.

And notice his fear of kids and young adults throughout the films, especially his epic monologue at the party his step-niece throws, about how kids today are better-adjusted and well-trained and that makes them vicious to people like him. And given the way his step-niece and her peers treat him like some sort of amusing pet, who they overindulge unhealthily as much as they do the dog, only to get annoyed at the consequences, it's hard not to sympathize with Greenberg's point-of-view at least a little. Of course, a human should have more agency than a dog, but... well... Baumbach's not really interested in the "should'ves".

I know that doesn't quite say what Noah's message is, but there is something a little more than character study here. How else to explain the apocalyptic/epiphanic tones of Greenberg, walking in darkness after seeing laughing, impressed young adults fishing the drowned rat/skunk (?) out of the pool...

*Do not take that as a dig at Noah Baumbach. I just have an extremely high opinion of Jennifer Jason Leigh.
** If there is a character who symbolizes for this movie what people should be like, it's probably Ifans' character, who is subjected to so much hurt, but never glories in it the way Greenberg does. He's a better friend than most of us deserve, but he's able to stand up for himself when he realizes things aren't going to change. This might not be any kind of ideal, but he's probably the only person in the movie you'd want to hang around with in real life for any extended period of time.