In his newest film about the specific way the White Stillman coined “Urban Haute Bourgeoise” interact, learn to connect and fail to connect in emotionally healthy ways, the Gen-X Noah Baumbach’s connection with my generation’s much reviled mumblecore movement is made apparent. Like Baumbach’s, mumblecore’s films focus on the small lives of individuals the filmmaker’s own very specific cultural and temporal environment. The films are most effective when driven by the minute details of interaction of a social group whose emotions (sadness, anger, hatred, ennui) are not so much suppressed than expressed in smaller, passive-aggressive ways that may not be fully appreciated or recognized by those who don’t know these specific codes. Perhaps Baumbach was before his time. Perhaps his first film Kicking and Screaming could be the key historical touchstone of the movement just as much as John Cassavettes Faces. Anyhow, in Baumbach’s new film Greenberg, Greta Gerwig (mumblecore’s version of Chloe Sevigny) plays the female lead. Mark Duplass (thus far probably the most “Hollywood successful” of the movement’s directors/actors) plays a minor friend of the titular mope.

This is a film that most people will absolutely hate and justifiably so. The title character (played by Ben Stiller, in yet another role that makes me like him as an actor until the next Night at the Museum gets pooped out of Hollywood’s wrinkled butthole) is pretty much completely unlikeable. And he doesn’t get much more likeable by the end. Roger Greenberg is a Brookly-based LA transplant, college educated wannabe carpenter who house-sits his rich brother’s Hollywood hills home while the brother is on a long vacation in Vietnam. He’s recently out of a psychiatric hospital, but moreover, he’s completely self-absorbed with no internal filter. Most of what he says is hurtful to everyone around him. Gerwig plays Florence, the mid-20s, recently single assistant to Greenberg’s brother who becomes involved with Greenberg. Rhys Ifans plays Ivan, Greenberg’s old band-mate and the only person that has been able to tolerate the acid that is Greenberg’s personality and remain friends with him. (Ifans and Stiller also share the most effective scene in the film wherein they are finally able to hash out a life-changing moment in both of their pasts.)

So Stiller inhabits almost every scene (following a 15-minute sequence at the beginning that introduces Florence.) He hates everyone else. He hates American Airlines. He hates birthdays. He hates himself. He’s pretty insufferable, but not unsympathetic. He’s damaged goods and it becomes clear later on that pretty much all of his interactions with people are steeped in defense mechanisms. He pushes people away, storming out of the room one moment and then pretends nothing happened the next. For him, character development consists of going from unwittingly cruel to trying to be less cruel some of the time. But this is the clay that Baumbach uses for his observations and humor.

About three times during the film this 70 year old blue hair sitting in front of me turned around with a scowl on her face after I (and perhaps 1 or 2 other patrons) laughed. Baumbach’s humor is far from broad – in fact, it’s more like a dog whistle. And, as somebody who sees quite a bit of himself in Baumbach’s most caustic characters (Kidman’s narcissist in Margot at the Wedding or Chris Eigeman’s sarcastic Max in Kicking and Screaming) I respond. Moreover, I think I appreciate his films for the exaggerated mirror-image view they give me that allows me to try to keep myself from being as terrible as his protagonists, because I know how much of myself there is in them.

That didn’t however, keep me from going on a Roger Greenberg-esque rant to my friend Marcia about how annoyed I was that that woman begrudged me my knowing chuckles at a film that, frankly, she should be glad she doesn’t get more: if she did she’d probably have to grapple with the same character flaws that I do every day. But those who are like me welcome every new comedy of manners that Baumbach creates, replete with their snarky assholes and light-touch emotional denouements. While they may not be objectively great films I certainly treasure them, god help me.

And thus ends the entry consisting of Jeff’s emotional issues more than info about the film itself.

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