As a real-life awkward person, I always find it comforting when screenwriters make their protagonist the most awkward character in the movie. Some classics:
Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in The Graduate; Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) in Annie Hall; or even Tommy Callahan (Chris Farley) in Tommy Boy.
Each of these characters is a totem of social discomfort; they hate themselves because they just can’t constructively interact with anyone that matters. And we love them for it. Not for the simple fact that they’re inept with women, customer service representatives, their parents, or any of that. We like them for those petty reasons – it gives them novelty. But we love them because in spite of themselves, they still try to overcome their eccentricities, and more times than not, to no avail. There’s something just so incredibly endearing about their perseverance; we identify with it, because whether you’re the nerd that picks his nose and wipes his boogers under his desk, or you’re the captain of the football team who secretly has a tiny penis, we’ve all been there. We’ve all tried to get over that hurdle of awkward in some shape or form, time and time again.
Thus was the mindset I had when going into Greenberg, the latest film penned and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding), and co-written by wife Jennifer Jason Leigh (she was given a story credit). From the trailer you get the sense that Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is one of these Woody Allen-ish guys, but in a contemporary setting. But as the movie trudges along (and it does trudge), we soon learn that there’s a major difference between Roger and the aforementioned social discomfort totems. Whereas Ben, Alvy, and Tommy persevere on their own volition, in spite of everyone and everything against them, Roger does the exact opposite. He willfully disengages from improving his situation, even sabotages himself. And the irony is that everyone who is “friends” with him actually tries to help him.
Now, I’m not saying this is bad or incorrect because it falls outside the paradigm of awkward protagonists in movies – I actually think it’s a pretty unique spin on them. The major issue though, is that he operates with such ambiguous motives that we never really know why he sabotages himself.
Once we meet Roger, we learn quickly that he was in a moderately successful rock band in the mid-nineties, and he single handedly sabotaged the band by turning down a record deal that could have been their huge break. This is the only “window” we get into Roger – that he feels regret for messing up the band’s success… but it doesn’t really go far enough to say anything about Roger other than the fact that he may or may not feel un-entitled to success. But that’s all assumption.
We also learn that Roger has recently been released from a mental institution, but we never really know why he was there in the first place. We only know that upon release, he shacks up at his brother’s house, while he’s away in Vietnam on vacation. And that’s that.
The only clear thing about Roger is that he’s definitely someone who’d rather dwell on and try to correct the past, as opposed to paving a bright future for himself. This is most notably reflected by the relationship he sparks with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s personal assistant who coddles Roger by running errands for him, and even by giving him a little company when he’s down and out. Quickly we see that Florence is certainly romantically interested in Roger, when out of nowhere, Roger proceeds to go down on her. Given that Roger is 40 and Florence is 25, it’s a little… challenging to buy that she’s game for his sudden chauvinistic fit. But she is.
Once Roger and Florence get “involved,” the movie is a series of ebbs and flows between Roger and Florence being friendly and awkwardly romantic together, and Roger intentionally sabotaging his chance at a relationship with her. The big thing though is that it never really makes sense why Florence, an attractive, affluent, only slightly awkward young woman, would even put up with Roger in the first place. Nothing tips us off, other than the fact that we see her engage in a tryst before she gets involved with Roger that leaves her empty and more alone. But really… the only thing she even says to give any reason why she puts up with his chronic sniveling and contemptuous behavior is a really elementary rationalization – since he’s got a screw loose, he must be some sort of genius deep down. In short, this is flimsy.
Don’t get me wrong – there are definitely some hilarious, all-too-familiar scenes in Greenberg that definitely make the film interesting and provocative, in particular a scene where Florence gets drunk by herself to pull herself out of one of many weird tiffs she has with Roger. But that brings me to my second major point. The movie felt like it was focusing on the wrong character. Greta Gerwig’s performance as Florence is so delicately and realistically portrayed, that I found myself craving for her presence on screen more and more (especially as it became apparent that Roger wasn’t really going to take any active measures to change himself). Florence is the voice of reason in this film, and in many ways the more dynamic and interesting character altogether. I felt myself wanting her take on the interactions with Roger much more than seeing him kick around a lonely house, constantly writing petty letters of complaint to various corporations. She was what this movie should have been about. Instead of a movie about the doldrums of a 40-year-old man on a mission to nothing (except piss of his friends and loved ones), this could have been a really unique film about what a balanced young woman will go through to fill a gap in her heart – that she’ll compromise her sanity for the diluted affections of an OCD pity reveler. And why.
Overall, Greenberg is a confused film, and dare I say, a little more confused than it’s supremely awkward protagonist. Again, I think there were more interesting things going in the script that simply weren’t cultivated to their full potential. The best thing I took away – the awareness that Greta Gerwig exists! Keep your eye on her.