By Margaux Williamson (mostly spoilers)
(I was thinking about “Greenberg” a few days ago while sitting on a dock watching a lot of jet skis go by. Most of the jet skis towed large children behind them on inner tubes. It really gave this sense of momentous movement while really, no one was actually moving. It made me feel like everything was a little bit wrong. I was also trying to remember if jet ski accidents involve mostly people on jet skis – or people under them who happen to be swimming in the water. This is when I thought of the movie “Greenberg” because “Greenberg” is about a man who complains a lot. I then jumped into the water. I had watched “Greenberg” a few months ago with my friends Sholem Krishtalka and Jon Davies and my boyfriend Misha Glouberman. I remember that we all took a cab home because it was raining – and how warm it felt in the cab as compared to the cinema.)
The main character in “Greenberg” is named Greenberg. Greenberg is a lonely man who complains a lot and doesn’t offer very much. We know that he had an early life as an almost-famous rock star. That was followed by a long period of wandering capped by a short stay in a mental health centre. His main creative output now consists of writing letters of complaint to the government, media agencies and corporations. The movie begins with his return to Los Angeles to stay at his brother’s house while his brother and family are out of town. He takes care of the dog, tries to build a dog house, begins to date the woman who is employed as a kind of servant to his brother’s family, sees old friends and meets the younger generation. The whole process is totally unpleasant. One feels quite a lot for the people who have to talk to him, one worries for the woman who is starting to date him, and one is charmed by the younger generation’s sympathetic/ bemused expressions while Greenberg deconstructs them after taking some drugs.
I always feel a little bit hesitant about giving the characters in Noah Baumbach’s movies so much of my attention. They are often culturally rich, unquestioning of their entitlement and hoard the scraps of love, attention and kindness that come their way like intensely hungry but confusingly plump children. The “Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” had pleasure, intelligence and humour but the rapt attention on such ungenerous characters makes me a little baffled and I’m never quite sure what it is that we are hunting for in there. “Greenberg”, however, I could totally understand.
We see versions of Greenberg all the time in movies. Intelligently critical people who know things are all wrong and crappy – who feel compelled to complain because they have a clear perspective on the people who are making the world a worse place. Though often filled with insecurity and discomfort, these figures are often remarkably unselfconscious about their own negative contributions. Pleasure in their characters or empathy for their positions come when we see them effectively change their environments, or listen to their moving songs, or laugh at their good jokes.
The very interesting and unusual thing about “Greenberg” is that Baumbach takes away this complainer’s status and his poetry. Greenberg is still an artist, but his only output are the often petty letters of complaint to Starbucks, the state of California and The New York Times. Baumbach has taken the sexy out of the asshole – he has taken the moral weight away from the complainer. It makes this kind of character easier to deconstruct. It makes Greenberg’s journey so unpleasant to witness that the movie begs for a narrative change.
The sliver of narrative change, and the best part of the movie, comes near the end when Greenberg finally asks one of his few remaining friends to give him an outsider opinion on his person. The question seems to slow time, lower the volume on the music – it makes us lean in. It is night, on the edges of a pool party. His tall, patient friend hesitates but then offers some constructive criticism of Greenberg-the-person. This question and the answer felt as though a giant crack had opened up on the screen letting a vertical flood of light in. The moment, realistically, only lasts for a half second before Greenberg’s unfruitful defense-mechanisms take over, flip out and shut out any of the information – but the great question has been asked and life has been stirred. And we are reminded that self-consciousness is a necessary virtue.