Noah Baumbach’s films haven’t evolved much since his 1995 debut, Kicking and Screaming. Released just past the slacker-chic curve, it would have been more accurately titled Shuffling and Whining. Those characters were privileged 20somethings. Baumbach’s subsequent movies tend to tap this same vein, watching privileged, increasingly older people wonder why they feel so sad.
Greenberg revisits such disaffections and narcissisms, this time afflicting 40something Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller). Rather like the film he’s in, it appears he hasn’t changed much since his slacker heydays of alt-rock non-superstar wannabe-ness. Figuratively, his life has no direction, though he tells us that he’s “doing nothing deliberately.” Vexed by New York City, he returns to his childhood home in L.A. to house- and dog-sit for his brother’s family while they vacation in Vietnam.
A stereotypical New York non-driver, Greenberg is continually slouching to the grocery store or bumming rides with distant friends and barely new acquaintances. Immobility, whether psychic or psychosomatic, is a recurring trope of Roger’s life. Of his recent stint in a psychiatric hospital, he explains that he one day found that he couldn’t move his legs, and that “it was psychological.”
His release isn’t making him happy. While Baumbach’s earlier idlers usually shared their angst with a community of like-minded grumblers, Greenberg is totally isolated. With no one to share his frustrations and confusion with, he pens sternly worded letters to corporate entities like American Airlines and Starbucks, complaining about their lack of human empathy and pre-packaged “atmosphere.”
On the rare occasion that Roger resists his agoraphobia (another form of immobility) and ventures out amongst people, he inevitably vents his displeasure and imposes his selfish whims on the most convenient target. His usual target is former college bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans). Anytime Ivan tries to steer their conversation toward his own troubles with his estranged wife and child, Roger steers it right back to himself, hectoring Ivan for being “selfish.” More distressingly, Greenberg takes some delight in his misanthropy; after dressing down yet another former friend, Roger asides to himself, “I’m really on tonight.”
Greenberg’s self-centeredness is challenged, slightly, when he meets Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother Phil’s (Chris Messina) personal assistant. Florence seems a kindred spirit. She’s detached from her own life, as evidenced by her tendency to succumb sexually to anyone who puts the most minor of moves on her. She wants a different, “deeper,” connection, but doesn’t know how to go about getting it. Florence immediately identifies with and admires Roger. She tells him she likes that he “doesn’t feel the bullshit pressure to be successful,” and defends him to her friends, insisting that “a lot of normal stuff is really hard for him.”
As he treats her like shit and she embraces it, their romance looks like a perfect storm of codependency, dressed up as introspection and self-analysis. Greenberg goes so far as to suggest that Roger and Florence’s particular pettiness is common and even benign by juxtaposing it against the more lethal superficiality of the new 20somethings represented by Roger’s stepsister Sara (Brie Larson). Stopping over from somewhere (college?) on her way to Australia, Sara throws a house party that gives Roger the opportunity to interact with the next generation. Seeing that they are actually “really different” from him, he’s shaken by his own irrelevance, reacting with unsurprising vituperation. The generational difference he deciphers amounts to the younger one’s refusal to wallow in their own vain anxieties. These kids don’t spend their time in self-doubt, and Roger observes they “say things so blithely” that it “scares” him.
But this is not about Roger’s ethical education or emotional development. Greenberg elevates his “introspection” over the “self-indulgent” superficiality of kids like Sara. But which is more self-indulgent? Acting out of the belief that you can be and do whatever you want, or “doing nothing deliberately” and moping on and on about it?