There’s a moment in the new indie film Greenberg when Ben Stiller is drunk and coked out and leaving voicemails for a young girl he’s pseudo-dating. I imagine that the writer/director, Noah Baumbach, wanted the moment to feel like a sort of epiphany, a moment when we, as the audience members, finally see the narrator in all of his flaws and vulnerability and love him the more for it.
Funny thing is, it was the exact moment when I accepted the fact that I absolutely detested this character.
Self-absorbed? Check. Pompous? Most definitely. Seeking connection, yet unable to open himself to others? This character is all of the above.
In a rare display of affection, Stiller’s character escorts his girlfriend to the hospital to receive an abortion. “You’re valued,” he quips to her as she’s being wheeled away for the difficult procedure. Her response?
“I know that.”
Her annoyance with Stillberg is perfect (I just caught this typo when I was editing, but the hybridity of actor and character pleases me). The actress, Greta Gerwig, nails the exasperation of her character with Greenberg; his psycho-babbling validation falls on deaf ears. And it’s Gerwig, the actress, who steals the scene: she has a sad, lost face throughout this film that is impossible not to watch. The simple act of falling into a papasan chair captures her understanding of this young person trying to establish a relationship with Stiller’s undeserving character.
Though I saw the film last night, I’m still meditating on my simple annoyance with Greenberg. Sure, the screenwriter wanted the character of Greenberg to be salty, but I lack empathy. I’m still impatient with him. Who wants to spend two hours with a self-absorbed, self-pitying, unlikable nit? It’s like having dinner with someone who really, really likes to talk about themselves and never pauses to ask you a question about your life. This happens in the film, in fact, as Stiller’s character prattles on about his brother’s dog’s health problems while Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother is actually dying. He is so self-absorbed he railroads her concern for his own.
Is there anything wrong with this type of behavior? Maybe I’m being too critical, and Noah Baumbach has captured a zeitgeist. We do live in a “me” culture: it’s everywhere, from our blogs (yes, I’ll readily admit my guilt) to the Twittering updates when we have a bowel movement.
Maybe Baumbach’s just reflecting what he sees–a culture in America of self-absorption at the expense of deep connection.