If you were born in the Sixties or early Seventies, and have a friend (or perhaps this is you, yourself) who never quite gave up that college dream of "making it big" as an artist, and so have toiled half your life away in menial jobs holding on to your diminishing dreams while the world has moved on around you, then you’ll understand the movie Greenberg, staring Ben Stiller as the irascible artiste nursing fifteen years of regret.
Understand, though maybe not really enjoy. The problem with this movie may be that the characterization of Greenberg is too spot on. Even in his forties, the guy has never quite given up on some impossible, childish, classically romantic idea of an artist who can remain “pure” from economic compromises and who castigates everyone around him who has decided to live in reality. Such a purely distilled ego comprised of high self-opinion, dashed dreams, and anti-establishment ideology cannot function normally in the world for long, and Greenberg has been recently released from a mental institution and decided to come live, for a time, in the house of his successful brother in LA, while his brother and family go on a trip to Viet Nam. He immediately begins annoying his old friends and acquaintances as he attempts to keep his shit together in day-to-day reality.
Greenberg – compromised as he is – has two charges he needs to look out for, his brother’s dog (a big, furry sad-eyed canine of pure innocence) and his brother’s personal assistant, an equally sad-eyed girl named Florence who casually sleeps around and reacts to Greenberg’s unpredictable temper with an equal mix of wonder and passive-aggressive seduction.
Writers Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh have created a really marvelous script of casual conversation, impromptu parties, dangerous edge, and illuminating comparisons (the party where Greenberg interacts with a group of brash, egotistical twenty-year-olds – telling them about how disappointing their lives will be and castigating their musical tastes – is the thematic heart of the movie and as compelling a portrait of Generation X deterioration and Millennial conflict as I’ve ever seen on film). Stiller is also perfectly suited for the role, going deep into the character and portraying brilliantly a psyche that is both over intellectualized and deeply distorted. That is, there is a lot of good work in this movie and the raves from critics are justified.
At the same time – and perhaps, this is just me, but I suspect there are others who will feel similarly – I just did not enjoy watching this character. I really do know people like this and they are infuriating enough in real life. Like my real-life friends, I kept wanting to reach out and slap Greenberg in the face and say, “snap out of it.” Fifteen years before, Greenberg and his two friends had a band, and they were offered a record deal, but Greenberg decided he didn’t want to have to deal with a recording studio and backed out of the deal, leaving his other two friends stranded. The band dissolved, and the three of them have been nursing this wound ever since.
That IS real life, and though the film does deliver a well-earned catharsis around this issue, coming at the age of forty and for a personality that still doesn’t quite get what he did wrong, I find the outlook punishing more than uplifting.
Maybe what bothers me is this: that instead of being on a trajectory of life, where losses are lessons in how to become stronger, Greenberg illustrates a character in stagnation, who is watching the world pass by and can only lash out randomly. For some viewers, that will make this movie seem like an hour and a half of pointless talking and heartache, since there is no character arch here to speak of, just character "ack."
Greenberg and Florence do finally enter into some semblance of a relationship, though even that is too sketchy to really earn the word. As I’ve said, all of this is illustrated with supreme craft and care, and some truly nice insights into the artist’s dilemma and growing older. I just wish I could have enjoyed Greenberg’s misery as much as he seems to.