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In Film, Reviews on December 4, 2011 at 7:36 am

Noah Baumback, 2010

A trendy film, with a trendy cast, by a trendy director.  A superstar lead man in a self-consciously indie role.  And a James Murphy soundtrack?

I did not see this film at the theatre when it came out because the trailer made me want to run for the hills, or at least the 60s.  Or some other time when the subculture existed as a challenge to the mainstream, not an extension of it allowing consumerism to tap into a tribe who see themselves as more informed or more aware or, dare I say it, more cool.

Oh those cool kids, how maligned they are.  The contemporary demonisation of the hipster is almost as complete as that of the hippy.  Before you remind me that the subculture of the 60s as we imagine it is a romanticisation, let me ask you if the modern hipster is really such a recent thing, or if they are really any worse – or any different – than young Frederic Moreau.

The trailer plays this movie for its cool, its slacker charm, its mid-30s underachieving middle class ennui.  And the film has all of these things, but fortunately – thank fuck – that is not all it has.  It follows the story of Roger Greenberg, played by Stiller, a 41 year old carpenter who has just been discharged from a psychiatric hospital, and has decided to spend some time ‘doing nothing,’ while house-sitting for his brother who has gone on holiday to Vietnam.  House-sitting means living in a huge family home in Hollywood, with a pool and a nanny with whom he develops an on-off relationship over the few weeks he is there.  The nanny is played by Greta Gerwig as a cutesy, slightly flakey, mid-20s woman who has not achieved much since leaving university and is just beginning to feel some discomfort at this.

Much criticism has been aimed at the film’s self-indulgence.  It is a film made by Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason-Leigh, both children of writers who would have enjoyed the comfort of a middle-class upbringing not dissimilar to Greenberg’s.  I did spend the first quarter of the film stewing at the monumental level of solipsism not just of the characters, but of the very idea of making a feature length movie about how awful it is to be an awkward middle-class teenager trapped in the body of a 41 year old IN A FUCKING 6 BEDROOM HOUSE IN HOLLYWOOD.  Oh no, the neighbours are using the pool.  Fuck off.

Woody Allen did something similar in the 70s.  He made movies exploring the neuroses of the New York middle class, infused with enough wit to make some otherwise insufferable characters charming.  Alvy Singer is the perfect example of a self-absorbed prick made interesting by an inspired performance, a sparkling script and some cracking jokes.  Move forward thirty years, substitute the West coast for the East, and replace Allen’s intellectuals with people who wanted to be rock stars but ended up being carpenters, nannies… normal people (albeit with greater than normal wealth).

And like the best of Allen’s movies, Greenberg gets inside that self-absorption, explores it and exposes it.  And most importantly of all, does it with a nuanced wit.  But unlike Allen, the navel-gazing of these characters does not result in real self-awareness.  What we have here is actually more subtle.  Throughout the film, Stiller accuses the other characters of not admitting their own issues, of dishonesty, of transferring their own issues onto him.  In a standard Hollywood character arc, we might expect there to be a second act crisis after which he finally accepts, explicitly, that he is in fact transferring his own issues onto others.

Baumbach plays with the viewer in reaching that second act crisis point.  We are suddenly plunged into an unplanned house party in the Greenberg family home, at which Stiller takes some cocaine for the first time in fifteen years.  So far, so Garden State.  But while Garden State depicts the use of ecstasy like a music video – pretty girls, sexual freedom and the safety of soft focus, Greenberg shows Stiller putting the viewer continually on edge with his twitchy energy.  We know the crisis is coming, but Baumbach keeps us guessing as to how.  Is Stiller going to go too far in his drug-fuelled criticism of the younger generation, is he going to start a fight over music, is he going to dive into the pool?  The clichés are displayed to us as bait, before he finally reaches the safety of best friend, Ivan, who has quietly put up with his selfish requests and outbursts for the whole movie.  And the crisis point is reached with a simple admission of his feeling that Ivan is more fucked up than he admits.  This act of projection finally pushes Ivan to explode before trying to explain to Greenberg, ‘This is huge.  It’s huge to finally embrace the life you never planned on.’

The acceptance of one’s own mediocrity is perhaps the greatest personal struggle of the baby boomers’ entitled generation.  While Greenberg does not seem to get it, explicitly at least, the argument does leave him in a state of contemplation during which he leaves a long and embarrassingly honest message on Gerwig’s voicemail.  The following day, we expect him to try to find some comical way of deceiving her into deleting her messages.  Instead, we watch him watch her listen to the messages.  He is no longer denying his character flaws or the mistakes to which they lead.  He is accepting them.  And he will live with the consequences.


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