I expect that some people will come away from the new Noah Baumbach film Greenberg disliking the movie because they dislike the main character. Disliking Ben Stiller's Roger Greenberg is understandable. He doesn't earn our admiration and he doesn't deserve our sympathy. He's really quite an asshole. He lashes out at everyone and everything, penning vitriolic letters to American Airlines over seating conditions and to Starbucks for the Starbucksification of culture. Mostly, he lashes out at the person who deserves it the least: Florence, his brother's family's 25-year-old assistant, who is far more patient with Roger than he deserves.
But Florence understands what many others don't. She knows that not everyone has the skills necessary to function like a normal person in society, that what is absolutely effortless for most is downright impossible for others. “Normal things are hard for him,” she says in Roger's defense to a girlfriend who wonders why she puts up with him at all. At times, we can see that she asks herself that, too. But she must understand that in some way, it's not really her he's tearing to shreds when he launches into rant after rant, but himself.
He certainly has reasons to be angry at himself. At 25, he was in an up-and-coming band. With characteristic self-absorption, he made a decision on his own that affected the fate of everyone in the group. Though one of his former bandmates, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), makes an effort to maintain a friendship with Roger, they've never really forgiven him for it. They (and we) are flabbergasted by how, for so long, he still fails to outwardly take responsibility for his actions. A conversation late in the film is fascinating for the way in which this finally shifts for Roger, and for how, even in the midst of acknowledging that he behaved poorly, he still directs his anger outward at Ivan, who has made peace with the normal family life that replaced the rock stardom he once dreamed of, the sort of normal life that would be so impossible for Roger.
Greta Gerwig is great as Florence. It's a natural performance that conveys the complexity of her feelings about Roger and about herself in subtleties. She doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, which perhaps is why she gravitates to the 40-year-old Roger, who, after a nervous breakdown, is just “trying to do nothing for a while.” I still found it hard to accept that this rather wonderful young woman would get involved with such a neurotic misanthrope as Roger, but he certainly has no chance with a responsible woman his own age, at least not yet. Perhaps his relationship with Florence will help him grow into a man who does. At the very least, he should come away from it being a bit less of an asshole.
I didn't like Roger. But as someone who sometimes feels like I'm fumbling my way through life while everyone else has all the answers, I did see a bit of myself in him, and I did like this film.
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