When you grow up, your heart dies. (Or so The Breakfast Club tells us). Oh, if only that were true. Life’s disappointments would be a lot easier to bear if you were heartless. You wouldn’t feel envy, or loneliness, or what it is to feel judged. Ghost-like, you could stop changing; remain in your favourite place. You wouldn’t need to untie your heart when you spoke. You’d be what Roger Greenberg (the man at the centre of Noah Baumbach’s new movie) wants to be. Dead. Unconnected to anyone. Here is a man who wants to withdraw from the world, but who is rescued by his anger. His need to withdraw frustrates him. He is intelligent, good-looking, and not shy about speaking his mind. Anger reminds him he should be a success.
In L.A., every pedestrian is judged a failure. Since Greenberg walks, everyone in L.A. knows his life hasn’t worked out. Walking means you can’t afford a car, or – worse still – you can’t drive, which is like wearing a tee-shirt that says: VIRGIN. To be American, and 40, and on foot is to be irrelevant, someone drivers can run down. Roger Greenberg is house-sitting for his brother. Ostensibly, he’s also building his brother’s dog a dog-house. His brother’s P.A. is there to drive him around. At first, Greenberg figures he can boink the P.A. because she’s beneath him. Over time, he comes to realise she, and he – and his brother’s dog – are each dependant on each other. After all, none of them will say they need help.
Greenberg isn’t comfortable being weak. But he is weak. That’s his problem. Florence (his brother’s P.A.) isn’t comfortable being strong. When Greenberg finds himself attracted to Florence, his concern is whether liking her makes him weaker. He treats her cruelly because she occupies the same position in life as him. To Greenberg, being semi-employed and looked-down-on by others is something to resist. Florence’s acceptance of her lowly status is difficult for Greenberg to understand. Why would she want him (from his point of view) unless he was a lesser person too? Some people would say Florence and Greenberg shouldn’t be together. But the movie, rather than approving or disapproving, shows us what happens, and leaves the audience to make up their minds. Florence is “of value” to Greenberg. He uses her. But he also knows her worth.
Ben Stiller is good at being frustrated. He has dignity. He’s built his career on fuming at setbacks. People expect him to be angry. They don’t, however, expect he’ll be ignored. The character he’s playing (Greenberg) never expected to be ignored either. He was in a band. He could have been big. It’s very difficult for him to reconcile all his potential with the sad little man who people don’t seem to want to know. The severity of Stiller’s features is put to good use here, as though an oncoming storm had been corked, and then shelved. He has the sincerity of lightning, unable to be anything but himself. Florence sees this clearly, and it scares Greenberg. He finds it demeaning to be loved, as if he were normal.
God help poor Florence. She’s a woman used to letting people walk over her. Greenberg’s imperiousness doesn’t even strike her as rude (to begin with). She’s too busy being meek to see her own needs as urgent. When Greenberg starts having sex with her for the first time, it’s as though she hands her body over to him, like a wallet, for him to inspect. She assumes she’s there to be judged. She assumes she has to apologise. Greta Gerwig (playing Florence) wears crushed hopes like an unflattering sweater. Her head is always somewhat bowed. She surrenders every time she smiles. But, humiliated as Florence is (by nature), Gerwig never makes her cute. She’s just as sad – and as pitifully real – as Roger Greenberg.
Can you admit blame for where you’ve failed in life? It’s harder than you think. First you’ve got to admit you’re prepared to be judged by the world’s standards. That means saying you’re smaller than the world. (Big egos fret over doing this.) At 40, if you’re alone, and broke, chances are you’ve experienced failure. Greenberg has. He still has a life to lead, though. In another movie, his character would grow and change. He’d be Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. However, this movie isn’t about growth or change, it’s about someone who goes around it circles. He does learn things about himself, but he’s still the same man at the end. The only difference is that someone is with him. You have to decide if she’s his first success.