We are all rock stars in our minds. We dream of spectacular things, and then even as we settle quietly into lives of mediocrity, we remain totally unique in our own eyes, floating above the regular characters we pass in the street or see on the news, the “they” that help us define who we are smarter than and hipper than. Until the moment a man looks up from his cubicle and realizes he has worked there for twenty years, he is convinced that it’s his half-finished screenplay that really defines him. He walks among the losers and sell-outs in his office, but is not one of them. Sometimes people carry on like this until they are very old; sometimes they wake up when they are 40 and the reality of where they are not makes them scream. Calling it a mid-life crisis is accurate, but trite; it is a profound moment in life, which defines everything that comes after. We will either be bitter and delusional, or we will “embrace the life we never planned to have.”
Movies that capture this idea gain tremendous respect from me. Patty Jenkins’ Monster showed the descent of one woman’s woozy dreams into a flood of violence she never saw coming. Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant Adaptation, a story about, of all things, flowers, had Nicolas Cage fantasizing a healthier life for himself while watching Meryl Streep spiral down a fanciful road to ruin through drugs, sex, and alligators. At the end of that film, amid the most ludicrous of denouements, Streep sobs, “I want to start everything over... I want to be a baby again!” And the sentiment is deadly serious, for no matter how successful we are, at some point we would all like to start over again, and not mess things up so badly this time around.
All of this is an attempt to convey why I found the new Noah Baumbach film Greenberg a far more affecting experience than its neurotic, intolerable characters would seem to allow. Greenberg stars Ben Stiller, utterly shedding his comedy roots just as Adam Sandler did for Punch Drunk Love, and his performance is one of the most accurate and piercing I have seen in years. Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a man we have all met: good-looking, witty, self-obsessed, constantly on edge, and incapable of seeing himself for the preening jerk that everyone else can clearly see he is. (To me Stiller almost perfectly channels the real life Tom Cruise.) Greenberg has just arrived in Los Angeles to housesit while his brother is on vacation, and he will use the time to figure his life out. He’s the kind of guy who assumes that if all he’s thinking about is figuring his life out, that must be all that anyone else is thinking about too—his life.
Greenberg meets Florence, a flirty, floaty girl who runs errands for his brother and walks the family dog. She is at the beginning of those dozen or so years that will define her middle age—the years that Greenberg has just realized he is coming out on the wrong end of. We meet Florence earlier in the film than Greenberg, and her artfully messy portrayal of vanishing youth is as crucial to the film’s portrait of loss as Greenberg’s middle-aged prickling—she is the optimist with an open future, seen at the precise moment when the possibility of failing first looms, not as a vague danger to be avoided, but as a real, crude, immediate thing, hanging on her when she wakes in the middle of the night in a strange man’s bed.
Greenberg and Florence become involved, of course, and there is no nicer term for it than that. They spin off each other, meet, fall apart, meet again, have sex, fall apart, and make bad choices all along the way. Greenberg is incorrigibly narcissistic, and Florence can’t seem to bite into anything with passion, even things she should be passionate about like a singing gig at a hipster bar. There is Greenberg’s old crush, Beth, now married with kids, and his former bandmate, Ivan, the only really touching character in the film. Ivan, like Greenberg, is a rocker who missed his chance, and fifteen years on he has truly embraced his new life as a computer repairman; the line in the first paragraph is his. He has grown up, while Greenberg still flips every delusional switch he needs to flip in order to remain convinced that he is God’s gift to the world.
There was another film that captured the world of failed dreamers in LA; it was David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. Greenberg, in a way, is like the less glamorous waking version of Lynch’s dream. It’s about the millions who didn’t make it, and the choices they faced when the world asked them, “Well, what now?” In Mulholland Dr., Naomi Watts was so tormented by her failure that in the end she ran to her bedroom and shot herself in the mouth. As she ran, she screamed, and it was one of the most primal, bloodcurdling screams I have ever heard in the movies, the scream of an entire life done wrong. A silent version of this scream seems to course through people like Roger Greenberg, funneling anger into everything they do and say. Stiller’s performance in Greenberg is so pitch-perfect that I make no distinction between his character and its real life counterparts who walk around us everyday—or perhaps you’re one of them. Or perhaps I’m one of them.
“Hurt people hurt people.” This trite but trenchant observation is passed along from character to character in Greenberg. It could also be put forth as the unifying theme of Baumbach’s entire cinema, as his previous films The Squid and the Whale and Margo at the Wedding also dealt with damaged, neurotic people. The difference is that whereas Squid made child actors do incredibly embarrassing things for a story that went nowhere, Greenberg presents its parade of awkward, biting characters as a portrait—a landscape, really—of the single biggest change that we can undergo in life: from fighting for an imagined future, to accepting a real present. That’s a noble enough purpose for me to forgive the film its intolerable protagonist. Indeed, I think it’s among the most admirable goals the cinema could strive for.