It’s been my understanding that Baumbach has a very selective fanbase, and that his films often ignite two opposite strong opinions amongst critics. Being Greenberg my first Baumbach film, my reaction was a solid meh. Yet it stayed with me since I saw it a couple of weeks ago, as that meh began to gradually loose its strength. For many hours I pondered, trying to understand exactly why I felt like I didn’t quite get the film’s core, and that so, I should watch it again.
The first time I watched it, I sort of floated through it all, only driven by its actors (Ben Stiller, Rhys Ifans, Greta Gerwig, even a small part by Dave Franco), trying to connect with the main character, Roger, but never managing to do so. Some claim that this anti-hero makes it impossible for the audience to sympathize with him, that despise it’s the only response. But that was not the case – I just couldn’t understand him. This sad, bitter man was a walking paradox: he was clearly insecure and narcissistic, indecisive and impulsive, hates people, hurts people, but still tries to reach out and even please sometimes. His actions were incoherent, his mind was mess, and his mood-swings and frontal personality made him impossible to stand, but not enough to hate.
We’ve seen characters with some of this traces, like Melvin in As Good As It Gets. The difference is you never stop loving Melvin. But Roger? You just can’t feel anything. Throughout the whole film all I got from him was confusion and disbelief, like what’s wrong with this guy?! The answer is actually quite simple and it’s really my fault that the implications of his condition only became clear to me later. Roger had just come out of a mental institution, so it’s safe to say that he was at least depressed. And perhaps he has been like that for a long time, for he’s been ruining things since he had a band with a couple of friends – amongst which the underappreciated yet amazing Rhys Ifans.
So I may be completely wrong, but this is how I see Greenberg: Roger’s apparent paradoxical personality is in fact a cocktail of insecurity, sadness and loneliness, masked with defense mechanisms that shape the series of awkward and incomprehensive moments and attitudes that are depicted in the film; his lack of goals – as he so simply puts it, saying “I’m really trying to do nothing for a while” – clashes with his constant desire to connect with people and actually do things, making him bounce back and forth, and leaving a trail of incomplete but not inconsequential actions. All of this wrapped in social detachment and a kind of numbness that gets dangerously close to the viewer.
So Roger’s dominant state of passiveness, occasionally punctured by an outburst of mixed and repressed feelings, leaves little for us to love. But if you look closer, you’ll find what his friend(s) see in him – an intriguing mind, and a rare, but sweet, precious warmth.
“The thing about you kids is that you’re all kind of insensitive. I’m glad I grew up when I did because your parents were too perfect at parenting- all that baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs; you’re just so sincere and interested in things! There’s a confidence in you guys that’s horrifying. You’re all ADD and carpal tunnel. You wouldn’t know agoraphobia if it bit you in the ass, and it makes you mean. You say things to someone like me who’s older and smarter with this light air… I’m freaked out by you kids. I hope I die before I end up meeting one of you in a job interview.”
– ROGER GREENBERG