Baumbach after Salinger: GREENBERG and KICKING AND SCREAMING

There is one scene midway through Noah Baumbach‘s new film Greenberg that belongs to a much worse movie: Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) at the back of a bar and watches his brother’s assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) perform with a folk band. As Florence sings, the camera slowly zooms toward Greenberg’s face in the way a camera does when a scene is meant to suggest that an epiphany is taking place. Greenberg the character is a California native, back after years in New York; a carpenter and former rock musician; and general misanthrope. Greenberg the film finds him housesitting for his brother and attempting to “do nothing” for a while. Instead, he begins a romance with Florence, largely a cycle of verbal abuse and qualified apologies. The zoom up to Greenberg inside the bar stands out both because of the sense of déjà vu it invites and because it suggests—contrary to most everything else in the film—that Florence has managed to change something inside of him.

This is not a pleasant movie, but it’s a successful one—the characters are well-developed and the scenes are often moving. There are a couple of easy reference points when considering Greenberg, what it means and why it works. One is Noah Baumbach himself, a native New Yorker and California transplant. Baumbach’s films are semi-autobiographical, and perhaps with varying degrees of deliberateness. Greenberg hears Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains In Southern California” and instructs Florence to “see past the kitsch.” Greenberg is the kind of guy who talks like that, we see, but Baumbach speaks the language well enough to write this kind of line.

Another reference point is a movie like Garden State, of which Greenberg is a sort of anti-. Characters fail to fix each other, even if, as Greenberg’s friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans, solidly likeable) points out near the film’s end, maybe they could. The male and female leads don’t cast off their neuroses while sprinting through an airport terminal either. Yet another reference point is The Catcher in the Rye, which as a general rule should not be used as a point of reference for any other work. But Greenberg lends itself so easily to comparisons with Salinger’s book that it’s a surprise fewer critics have connected the two, especially after the author’s recent passing. Baumbach’s movie effectively begins where Catcher ends, only weeks after Greenberg has left a treatment center, having suffered a nervous breakdown.

Catcher is a special book in that the reader’s journey takes place over the course of several readings. Readers (at least those of a certain age) tend to identify with Holden Caulfield the first time through and later come to view him more critically: sanctimonious and naïve, if still worth spending an afternoon with. The reason this identification happens at all might be because all the time we spend reading Catcher, we spend in Holden’s interiority. Roger Greenberg has no such advantage in gaining our sympathy (although two hours with him is totally bearable.) We’re on the outside looking in, which means seeing how much of his life is his own fault.

* * *

It’s not hard to think of Baumbach’s films in continuity with each other; they all dramatize the problems of hyper-literate people of privilege, with common cadences and a basic tonal consistency. But Greenberg and the director’s first film, the post-collegiate comedy Kicking and Screaming, most conspicuously suggest a Baumbachverse. (This will all fall apart after Mr. Popper’s Penguins.) A few Greenbergs-in-waiting populate Kicking, and to strain the Salinger connection: these are the people Franny Glass went to school with. They’re pretentious, entitled, and mostly successful in doing nothing during their first year out of college.

If Greenberg has one lousy scene, Kicking and Screaming has a number of scenes that feel stolen from a Whit Stillman movie. (Which may forever be a risk posed to films about smart, rich kids in limbo.) The resemblance isn’t helped by the presence of regular Stillman player Chris Eigeman. Eigeman is basically the same character here as he is in Barcelona and Metropolitan, coasting from quip to quip, always on the verge of alienating all his friends. Eigeman’s Max is necessary to the film, much as he distracts from it. Kicking’s lead, Josh Hamilton, is a bore, so Eigeman tends to make off with each scene he’s in, projecting confidence and weakness of character in equal measures.

Max and Hamilton’s Grover are both neurotics, and both are self-defeating in love. Still, neither is destined to be Roger Greenberg—at least not necessarily. Not a ton happens during Kicking and Screaming (its characters are more successful than Greenberg, remember), and by the time the film’s over, Grover, Max and company haven’t become adults, even if they’ve become, for us, people. Kicking and Screaming ends on an ambiguous note, its characters’ futures undetermined. This doesn’t feel like a cop-out because we know enough of Max or Grover to imagine what they might do with the options available them. But as Baumbach’s most recent film insists, it would be easy for either of them to never grow up.

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