Thursday, September 2, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Film Reviled

#97. Greenberg

In 1964 later Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow published a book called Herzog, about a man who among other things constructed letters of complaint, some of which he sent and some of which entertained only a brief presence in his mind, suppressed in time by other, equally displeasing aspects of the failed life he was gradually confronting.

I wonder if Noah Baumbach, the director of Greenberg, ever read Bellow. Even if he didn't the archetype is well understood: the man alone, the man apart, who lives in his mind but is not elevated by that purism of thought. A man stalled, and rusting, who makes as we all must connections with the world, but always on strange and further isolating terms.

But why letters? To write a single letter, an occasional comment, is no cause for concern. A balanced mind, a socially integrated mind, sees the letter for what it is: one of many means by which to seek redress, to assert a kind of personal order on the disorderly tendencies of life as a whole. To write many letters, however, is different: it shows a person who has forgotten the other ways; who no longer knows how to cope with the fact of his own existence, the daily perpetuation of his one and only life.

A man, nonetheless, who senses his own dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. Who is sending tersely, even snidely worded messages in erratic glass bottles, and who quietly hopes for acknowledgment, a reply—anything that could sustain his vague and perhaps misguided conviction that things don't have always to be this way. Whose fear of change invariably keeps such things that way in the end.

While I was reading Herzog, those who asked about the book came away unimpressed with the subject matter. “Sounds boring” was a common reaction, for which I could hardly blame them. But "boring" was only the tip of the iceberg among the fine frequenters of Gen X who kindly answered when I ask what they thought of this film. “Horrible,” came a common thread. “Completely despicable main character,” came another: “Why would I ever care what happened to him?” The worst part, for many, was articulated in their conviction that “nothing happens to the main character: he doesn't grow at all.”

Ben Stiller is indeed playing a man difficult for audiences to love: a man whose mental breakdown and decision to do “nothing for a while” comes as no surprise for family and friends used to him being so self-absorbed as to neglect everything from basic social niceties, to common courtesy, to the small matter of, oh, growing up. (Greenberg's friends are all in their late thirties and early forties with children and accomplishments against which his own desire to re-enact the past proves boorish and unkind.) Baumbach himself concedes the difficulty of this character by opening the film not around Greenberg, as he emerges from the mental hospital and flies to L.A. to stay at his brother's while brother and brood sojourn in Vietnam, but Florence, the brother's personal assistant.

Florence in many ways makes it easier for audiences to come at the difficult character of Greenberg, not least of which being because Baumbach has carefully seeded the film's requisite lines about mental illness and its consequences into Florence's rationalizing of Greenberg's actions, as he dips into and out of a desire to pursue a relationship with her. Beyond the lines themselves, it seems perfect that Florence would say them, for she is in her own way also stalled, also restless with a sense of having failed to accomplish anything of note—but where Greenberg turns himself ever inward when faced with these anxieties, Florence reacts always by giving herself over to her surroundings, with often sad but far more common consequences.

In this case, her surroundings are Greenberg. Greenberg, whose inconsideration has its moments of utter cruelty and also utter sensibility. Not one person I've spoken to about this film wants Florence to pursue a relationship with this man, this “hurt person” who seems only capable of hurting others. Yet to see how Florence behaves around everyone, and specifically how low she sets the bar for “feeling good” in the wake of an oft-mentioned but never recapped bad break-up, it's hard to imagine any other outcome for her but to identify with someone else's pain and in it find cautious salve for her own.

Beyond this, Greenberg is throughout the film verging on “trying” for the first time in his life—trying to do right by his brother's sick dog, trying to follow the sometimes conflicting signs his life is presenting him, trying to apply the lessons we can only assume were learned during his time in psychiatric care. It is not an act we ever see him fully achieve in the course of the film—the audience always waiting for the other shoe to drop, until Baumbach finally runs out of shoes and leaves us agonizing over their uneven number—but one we are asked to hope for, as any decent human being hopes that others will learn compassion in their time.

Perhaps I hold a bit more fealty to this character, and this film, because of the universal dislike I've encountered from others who saw the movie before me. I confess to expecting, in the wake of so much condemnation, a kind of reheated post-modernist disillusionment à la Garden State or Broken Flowers. But Greenberg isn't that at all: its titular character is for starters by no means billed as icon of his generation. Greenberg is, if anything, its antithesis, the throw-back amid people of all ages who are doing a much better job living in those respective ages. Furthermore, Baumbach lets Greenberg get away with absolutely none of his faults: the brutal honesty of every causal relationship is bared for all to see.

Nonetheless, there is a narrative arc to the film. Realizations are had, and then lived. So to answer the rhetorical question posed by so many who've seen this film and despised it, crying "Why would I want to see a film about such a horrible person?": Because he is a person, warts and all. Because art is different from entertainment, and has no obligation to be easy to enjoy. Because to watch a film with such a character in it is to learn a little more about the widely varied characters we know in real life--and especially those with idiosyncratic neuroses, and legitimate mental health issues, who should be held no less accountable when they act like the assholes, deep down, we all fear we sometimes are.

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