I recently hit bottom and returned to work (part time) as a copy editor at a celebrity publication where I was a staffer ten years ago, at the age of twenty-three. Back then Angelina Jolie, at age twenty-four, was married to Billy Bob Thornton, who was born in the first Eisenhower administration. The age difference was twenty years. Now Jolie, thirty-four, is paired with Brad Pitt, forty-six, and the duo (as the rags like to put it, mostly to avoid the incessant repetition of couple) have half a dozen children, many appropriated from the Third World, whom they cart around to sets across the globe. As of this writing, the clan is in Venice, where mom and dad enjoy drinks at Harry’s Bar—where Hemingway ordered bellinis—when the old lady isn’t shooting The Tourist, a thriller co-starring Johnny Depp and Timothy Dalton and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who made The Lives of Others.
That I know and can rattle off any of this is, to me, a matter of intense shame and disgust, but I raise these facts as an introduction of sorts to Greenberg, the new work by Noah Baumbach that is of interest as a confused deployment of contemporary status symbols. The three cardinal post-collegiate vanities are career achievement, coupledom, and procreation, and these are all that are at stake in Greenberg.
Stiller’s title character has been received popularly as a “loser” and an “asshole,” or a bitter cocktail of the two. (The successful have an excuse for being assholes; losers should at least be nice, and meek.) He is forty years old, the leader of a band that split after he refused to compromise with a major label fifteen years earlier, i.e., during the mid-’90s, around the time of the Soul Asylum single “Misery” (“They say misery loves company/ We could start a company and make misery/ Frustrated, Incorporated.” Etc.). Greenberg works as a carpenter in a collective in Bushwick that, in one of the film’s better jokes, is marred by “all the politics.” Such a profession would normally nowadays connote a hoary authenticity. For Greenberg, and for the Los Angeles friends he returns to, his piecework livelihood is just another sign of his long-ago hubris (and failure) in the face of the corporate A&R man’s temptation.
The only character who recognizes the charm of Greenberg’s ability to “work with his hands” is Florence Marr, the twenty-five-year-old he quickly and sloppily becomes entangled with on his arrival in Los Angeles. Florence—played by Greta Gerwig, a mumblecore actress adept in the art of the blank stare, today’s shorthand for vulnerability—is another aimless loser, though, being younger, she has not yet squandered her potential. She is, for example, undeniably fertile, as demonstrated by the abortion she must endure to terminate a fetus begotten at the tail end of a recently sunk relationship. The abortion is less occasion for moral crisis than a painful inconvenience—and a signal to Florence that, in addition to having no career (she works as a personal assistant to Greenberg’s brother, a corporate hotelier), she is also incompetent in the fields of coupling and procreation.
The abortion does serve the ends of the romantic comedy plot through which Baumbach plods. Guilt nudges it along. Greenberg is by turns nostalgic, toxic, quixotic, and for these qualities he is repeatedly chastised. He embodies that notorious archetype, the permanent adolescent male, a figure Hollywood and its independent tentacles resurrect on a weekly basis to administer a purgative lashing. He is crooked, his neck bent toward toward the past, his ego bloated and warped by aspirations unrealistic yet unsurrendered; he must be straightened and deflated. Florence’s innocent if vacuous freedom from ambition will redeem his youthful failures and quell his restlessness. They may never be successful, but they’ll have each other, and perhaps kids, and two out of three ain’t bad.
The only characters in Greenberg with three out of three are Greenberg’s brother, Phillip, and his wife, both of whom spend most of the film on a business trip-cum-vacation in Vietnam. That Philip is the only character possibly more despicable than Greenberg is a function of his conventionality—Philip’s obnoxiousness is not idiosyncratic in the manner of Greenberg’s.
(Worth mentioning, maybe: Philip bears some resemblance to the character Stiller played in the 1994 film Reality Bites, a media executive who vies with a musician, played by Ethan Hawke, for the hand of a recent college graduate and amateur filmmaker played by Winona Ryder. There are other echoes here: Hawke’s character is not far from Greenberg before failure; Ryder’s is analogous to Florence. In real life Ryder dated a successful rock musician, Dave Pirner of the aforementioned Soul Asylum; a few years later, when I had my first copy editing job, she was arrested for shoplifting $5,500 worth of clothing and accessories from a Saks Fifth Avenue store in Beverly Hills. Now she plays bit roles like Spock’s mother in last year’s Star Trek relaunch while her Girl, Interrupted costar Jolie … see above.)
In addition to a wife, children, and a mansion, Greenberg’s brother has a dog, which Greenberg and Florence must collaborate to sit. The dog contracts an autoimmune disorder requiring multiple trips to the veterinarian (and thousands of dollars in veterinary bills, an undigested reference to the sick cult of pet worship in America), and these in a way slightly less maudlin than Florence’s abortion bring the lovers together, pet care acting as a try-out for parenting.
Children are hell—at least that is the feeling conveyed from Greenberg’s point of view by an early scene in which he attends a pool party of his fortyish peers and their teeming antic offspring. The message is turned on its head near the end of the film by a former bandmate of Greenberg’s, Ivan, a now sober addict running a small-scale tech service and trying to keep together a marriage. He scolds Greenberg for not trying to “get to know” his eight-year-old son, as if eight-year-olds are much worth getting to know. The smug self-righteousness of the young parent knows no bounds.
Oh, the glory of “having it all” (career, spouse, spawn), a curious mantra whereby life is conceived as a series of choices: make the proper choices in the appropriate order, and you will have it all. Failure is a matter of faulty decision making, mismanagement of options, turning down the job offer (or record contract), dumping the girlfriend you should have clung to. On this view the only adversary an individual faces (besides, implicitly, himself) is time. Years pass, and the options dwindle until only two remain: seeking and settling. Seeking for the aged means running the risk of total failure; settling brings a decorous end to risk. The dichotomy affords the settled the privilege of gloating. More important, it denies the agonistic nature of life in a market economy. Individuals don’t simply choose, they compete against practically all friends, foes, and strangers, buffeted by the tides of history, and mostly they are defeated. The lie that goes by the name of “settling” disguises this defeat as a matter of choice.
Grow up, shut up, and settle; the only alternative is insanity (Greenberg, I so far neglected to mention, has recently been discharged from a mental ward). That is the moral of Greenberg. It is a romantic comedy designed to prove that the romantic comedy is moribund, because romance is impossible except in its grimmest form: mutual consolation.