Maybe I just don’t get out much, but the central figure in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg doesn’t look to me like anything to be found in nature. I’m not talking about the title character, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), whose narcissism and self-importance, combined with a case of borderline hysteria borne of his attempt to cling to his youth and that knowing and self-consciously precocious quality we call “hip,” are only too familiar. I mean Florence (Greta Gerwig), the young woman, 15 years his junior, who becomes Roger’s love interest. Like young women in many of the movies I have seen but unlike any I have ever met in real life, Florence has no sense at all of her own value in the sexual economy. It’s true that she is also lacking in a sense of self-worth generally, and that this is a common affliction, but I find it difficult to believe that someone as attractive as she is should be prepared to sleep with the first man who asks. Maybe it’s a southern California thing.
The first man who asks isn’t Roger, as it happens, but an otherwise absent character called Warren (Chris Coy) who, when she shows a moment of reluctance by saying that she’s just getting out of a relationship and is not ready for another one, brutally replies with a snort of laughter that “This isn’t a ‘relationship.'” Silly bitch! He might as well have said to her. It’s a one-night stand. Are you interested or not? She’s interested, alas. OK. It could happen, but only (I think) with a woman whose sense of self-worth was pathologically out of kilter or so ideologically feminist that she thinks she’s proving something by being as promiscuous as a man. Florence is not like that. On the contrary, she is supposed to be this film’s “normal” to Roger Greenberg’s (supposedly) interestingly quirky. But, to at least one viewer, Roger’s tiresome quirkiness turns out to be way less interesting than Florence’s deformed normality.
Roger is house-sitting for his brother and sister-in-law in Los Angeles while they take a family trip to Vietnam. He has just got out of the hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. A former musician, he had years before sabotaged his L.A. based band’s one offer of a record deal by denouncing the record company’s terms as a “compromise,” and the other band members are still bitter about it. One, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), is still friendly, however, and preternaturally patient with Roger’s demands upon their old friendship. Roger has since moved to New York and become a carpenter. Now, in return for living rent-free at his brother’s place in rich L.A., he proposes to build a dog-house for the family German Shepherd, pretentiously named Mahler. The dog develops an auto-immune disorder, which occasions a subplot involving veterinarians and Roger’s neediness on account of not being able to drive.
A.O. Scott in the New York Times calls Roger a “walking challenge to the Hollywood axiom that a movie’s protagonist must be likable.” He should have waited until the box office figures come in, which are pretty anemic-looking, but let’s say he’s right and that Roger is interesting without being likable. I don’t find him so, but I’m willing to grant that others will. Still, I’m inclined to think that such interest as there is is not so much in him as it is in the shadowy presence of the therapeutic culture, of which he is the creature. He is forever saying things like, “I’m not one of those preening L.A. people who expects everything to be about them” when, as we instantly realize, that’s exactly what he is. But the potentiality for humor in such self-ignorance is, in my view, strictly limited.
More promising are the pseudo-profundities like “Hurt people hurt people,” a saying traded back and forth between Roger and Florence as if it were a family photograph — except that Mr. Baumbach, who both wrote and directed the film, appears to regard this as a real profundity. It’s not quite so tautological as “it is what it is,” which was the favorite saying of a therapist of my acquaintance, but it hardly gets you any further in the direction of actual meaning. The occasional mordant observation, such as that “all the men out here” — that is, in L.A. — “dress like children, and all the children dress like superheroes,” doesn’t quite make up for Roger’s monumental self-absorption, which I fear Mr. Baumbach partly shares.
“I’m trying to do nothing right now,” Roger tells people about his sojourn in La-La land, and the paradox of having to try to do nothing highlights that of the therapeutic approach to narcissism, which is that the more you indulge yourself in therapy the more narcissistic you become. He has to stress that his fainéantisme is deliberate, which makes it therapeutic, which makes it all right and not the interesting character flaw it would be if he were just doing nothing because he felt like it. We are probably meant to take seriously the contention that Greenberg is “learning to love again,” but it is not clear to me that he has ever learned to love. And the indication of hope at the end is a pretty flimsy foundation for believing that he has done so now.
Mr. Baumbach is much admired by critics for a sort of deadpan humor of the kind you see in his earlier films, The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. There, too, his characters are mostly unlikable, though one or two stand out as being less unlikable than the rest and so able to generate some sympathy. In this film, Ivan and Florence fall naturally into that category but, as they are at best friends and not family members (as in the earlier movies), we naturally want to ask ourselves why on earth they should be having anything to do with someone so unlikable as Roger Greenberg. Doubtless his emotional problems are a matter of great interest to Roger himself, but because we see no reason why they should interest the only two sympathetic characters any more than they interest us, the whole thing looks contrived and artificial.
Another New York Times fanboy, Dennis Lim, writes that, as “a fan of “The Ben Stiller Show,” Mr. Baumbach had long thought of Mr. Stiller as a kindred comic spirit and for Greenberg, Mr. Baumbach said, he “wanted someone who knew what was funny about the part.” Unfortunately, he also needs an audience which knows what’s funny about the part, and I predict that that will be harder for him to come by. “It felt great to not be in a movie that had to be servicing laughs,” Ben Stiller is quoted as saying — as if making the actors feel good were the point of the exercise. The narcissism is real enough, anyway.