dir: Noah Baumbach
Officially the most depressing flick of the year. Worse than a twenty-hour Holocaust documentary. Worse than a dramatic indie flick chronicling the breakdown of a marriage in excruciating detail. Worse than a live action film where the main character is a computer animated dog.
It always gets me when the people designing the posters for films do this, whereupon they put the name of the ‘star’ at the top linking it directly to the main character of the flick they’re obviously in. When they were making those Bourne Identity et al flicks, the posters, which featured a big muscly pic of Matt Damon, often came standard with the phrase “Matt Damon IS Jason Bourne!” as if there were any lingering doubts in the confused populace.
Of course the confusion arises because Matt Damon isn’t Jason Bourne, a fictional character, he’s the actor and soft drink salesman Matt Damon, surprisingly enough.
So when the posters for this dirge of a flick has the same type of phrase, as in “Ben Stiller IS Greenberg”, I don’t have the same pedantic reaction. What I actually think in this instance is that if Ben Stiller actually was this Greenberg person, someone should murder him in his sleep.
Greenberg, as in the sort-of main character in this flick, is like the worst person I’ve ever seen in a movie. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter comes across as more pleasant and avuncular. The various versions of Hitler on film come across as less repellent and self-absorbed. Richard Milhous Nixon in the Oliver Stone flick screaming obscenities about Kennedy, blacks and Jews is nicer and cuddlier than this monster Greenberg.
The flick’s other main lead is a woman called Florence (Greta Gerwig), who seems to drop her kit at the drop of a hat. She is meant to come across as some kind of nice and sweet counterbalance to Greenberg’s almost autistic lack of regard for others, but she ends up being just as annoying, though not as unpleasant. She works as a personal assistant to a very wealthy Los Angeles-type, being Greenberg’s brother. I don’t mean personal assistant the way that the term applies to the rest of the world, as in, a person who used to be called a secretary or a go-fer, or a Girl Friday in the office, but in the L.A. contemporary version.
Which is, a person you hire and pay to do the things in organising your life that you don’t have time to do yourself, like walk your dog or pick up your dry cleaning or to do your shopping, and presumably to wipe the parts of your and your family’s anatomies that you don’t have time to wipe because of the freneticness of your lifestyle.
Rich people, eh? They suffer so we don’t have to.
When the family she works for go on a trip to Vietnam, she is asked to keep tabs on the husband’s brother, who will be staying in the house for a while, fresh from his stay in some kind of psychiatric facility. This is the Greenberg of the title, played by Stiller, who’s never been less funny, deliberately.
He is a piece of work, a fucking wretched piece of work.
But the weird thing is I can’t articulate to you, the sweet reader, why he’s such a monster worse than ten Hitlers and Stalins. It’s not like he sets any orphanages on fire, or runs any nuns over repeatedly, or poisons people’s drinks so he can film them in very painful and compromising positions.
But he does poison everyone he speaks to. Inevitably Florence is pulled into his poisonous orbit, and they speak and act awkwardly towards each other at all times. They have awkward sex that looks as unpleasant for her as it is for us to watch it. He, before, during and after, speaks to her with the contempt and lack of feeling that you usually reserve for chewing gum that gets stuck to the arse of your pants.
But she, recovering from the end of another relationship, despite his being 15 years her senior, being an awful, callous, self-obsessed derelict of a vicious human being, and having nothing in common with the repellent and odious Greenberg, for some reason keeps hoping that some kind of relationship might transpire.
Why? I couldn’t figure it out. Its only purpose seems to have been to depress me further.
Greenberg, who we never find out as to whether brain damage, childhood trauma or alien abduction is the reason for his awfulness, is a person in stasis, in amber, who wants at 40 to be doing nothing. He repeatedly keeps telling people that he wants to be doing nothing, to have nothing and no-one to be committed to, because he just doesn’t want to be obligated to anyone or anything.
Fair enough. He has one friend in this world called Ivan (Rhys Ifans), with whom he used to be in a band together, and who tolerates his toxic narcissism for reasons not immediately discernible. Ivan at first seems to be as much of a sad-sack as Greenberg, but we eventually see he doesn’t need Greenberg, and is actually making a far better go of life than Greenberg will ever manage.
Some key moment in their lives transpired 15 years ago, when the band they were in, The Magic Markers, was on the cusp of major label success, only for Greenberg to go and fuck up the deal, and to end up working as a carpenter. It’s odd that a similar character trajectory occurs in the recent Jonathan Franzen novel Freedom with one of the main characters, Richard Katz, doing something very similar, not that there’s any further connection. It's just an odd coincidence.
It seems that since then, before then, and ever after, Greenberg was and will always be a monstrous arsehole with mountains of self-regard and a sociopathic disregard for the needs or feelings of others. As such, although I can see the intellectual interest in portraying such a character, and Ben Stiller does (I guess) a superb job playing what should become the most hated character in film history, but I was somewhat at a loss as to what I was supposed to derive from this flick apart from a deep hatred of Greenberg.
I would argue that the directions the story takes us defies deliberately any notions of redemption, or character trajectory, or white privileged people coming to terms with things or learning about things or any of the crap that’s supposed to make these character studies worthwhile. If we’re supposed to hope that he and Florence are going to make a decent go of it and make a new life together as a couple, I’m sorry, but that’s the most depressing idea of all.
The happiest ending of all would have been Greenberg being murdered like the victim in Murder on the Orient Express, where everyone in the film and who’s ever hated the chap gets to stab him to death. But unfortunately, the flick has the most depressing ending ever, one where Greenberg continues to live and breath.
I guess I’ve left out the aspect of the flick and the character that horrified me the most: the fear, the terror at identification; finding similarities and echoes of familiarity between myself and this loathsome creature. I guess we hate nothing more than people who remind us of our own weaknesses without giving us an escape route, a mirror that reflects all flaws, no virtues, back at us in an unadulterated and unquirky form. To think one could end up like this is… terrifying.
It’s interesting in a sense, I guess. Crafting and portraying a character like this can’t be easy. There’s some directorial skill involved, I guess, and acting skill as well, because it cannot have been easy for a saint in waiting like Ben Stiller to play a nervy, unfunny, overly sensitive and overly analytical jerk with absolutely no redeeming qualities. So I guess he did a tremendous job.
It was still a deeply unpleasant experience, after which I felt like I needed a scourging, burning hot shower to feel unpolluted again.
5 ways in which Sartre got it wrong when he said “Hell is other people”, because it really should have been “Hell is watching Greenberg” out of 10
“You like me so much more than you think you do” – no he doesn’t you idiot – Greenberg.