Fifteen years ago, Roger Greenberg refused to sign a recording contract and thus forced the break-up of a band he was in. Now, he has returned to Los Angeles after living for an undefined amount of time in New York as a carpenter. Roger’s former friends have all moved on as they’ve grown into their new lives: at least one former band-mate never forgave him, his one-time lover Beth can barely recollect their time together, and his brother regards him as a near-worthless ne’er-do-well. Ivan, the one friend still willing to spend any time with Roger at all, seems to do so out of pity more than actual fondness. Roger, however, is stuck in his own past, doggedly trying to get the band back together, convince Beth to go out with him again, or throw a party for people who no longer like him.
Fifteen years ago, Noah Baumbach’s debut film “Kicking and Screaming” was released. The film centered around four recent college grads who decided to stay on campus for an additional year after graduation. What the former students manage to achieve in their artificial gap-year would be laughable were it not so pathetic: one attempts to audit additional classes while living in his girlfriend’s dorm room; one defers admission to graduate school to work in a video rental store; one dates a townie. Protagonist Grover sleeps with freshman girls while obsessing over his former lover Jane, who left him to study in Prague. Like Roger Greenberg’s aspiration to “focus on doing nothing for awhile,” the characters of Kicking and Screaming are stuck in the past and, out of some mixture of fear and stubbornness, refuse to grow up.
However, what was awkward to watch in young alumni is downright painful to watch in a forty-year-old with anger management issues. The guys in “Kicking and Screaming” were arrogant, pretentious and completely out-of-touch with reality, but this was mitigated by their wit and obvious fear. They may have been jerks, but they were occasionally aware of it and tried to use humor to cover it up. By contrast, Roger Greenberg is borderline psychotic. He spies on the neighbors who use his brother’s pool; he becomes furious when only Ivan attends a pool party he thought of the night before. Roger is constantly writing angry letters to various corporations for any minor infraction he can think of. When Ivan surprises Roger with a birthday cake at a restaurant, Roger erupts into a tantrum and storms out of the room. At one point, Roger asks Ivan to tell him what other people honestly think of him. When Ivan replies that people think Roger “doesn’t make any effort,” Roger predictably launches into a tirade about how wrong they are. Most damningly of all, though, is Roger’s cruel love-hate relationship with the film’s female lead, Florence Marr.
Much has been made of Greta Gerwig’s performance as Florence, and it’s easy to see why. The character of Florence is ripped straight from any male hipster fantasy. She is young, quiet, mostly passive and receptive to Roger’s clumsy advances for no apparent reason. She is smart enough to comment on the absurdity of dating someone at least a decade her senior, but never assertive enough to break it off or even defend herself when Roger repeatedly yells at her for every minor act, including telling him a “stupid” anecdote, and, perversely, agreeing to see him again. To top it all off, Florence is employed as a personal assistant to Roger’s brother, so she is literally paid to take care of Roger for the duration of his stay in Los Angeles. (When they first meet, Florence offers to pick up some groceries for Roger. Roger hands her a list consisting of “Whiskey” and “Ice Cream Sandwiches.”) Florence isn’t a character so much as she is a pillow: shapeless and utilitarian.
Florence appears even more regressive in comparison to the women of “Kicking and Screaming,” who were noticably more confident and grounded than their male counterparts, and are willing to exert control over their own lives: Jane sacrifices Grover for Prague in a way that is perfunctory but not inhuman; Kate the townie is willing to pick a fight over a parking space when Max would just as soon hide. Florence shares none of these traits. The extent of her expressed attraction to Roger seems to be that he is “vulnerable” and “doesn’t feel pressure to be successful.” Essentially, she likes him because the film needs her to – if a character this custom-ordered can’t enjoy Roger’s company, why should the audience?
What is there to like about “Greenberg”? Baumbach may be clumsily stealing from himself, but at least he chose a decent film to rob. The entertainment to be had in this film comes, as in Kicking and Screaming, from Baumbach’s talent for literate, self-conscious one-liners, delivered in this film chiefly by Roger. Though not among Baumbach’s best, there is some truly funny dialogue on display. (“Youth is wasted on the young.” “I’d go father than that, I’d say life is wasted on…people.”) Furthermore, the experience of watching Roger flail through his relationships is not consistently painful. Anyone with a misanthropic streak in them will be able to occasionally see themselves in Roger, at least for a moment or two, before he plunges from mere snark back into verbal aggression.
However, none of these aspects are redeeming for either Roger or the film. As a result, the ending feels forced and completely undeserved. Surely the viewer is entitled to some kind of catharsis at this point? Instead all one gets is yet another advance on Florence from Roger – this time with a few more smiles and apologies.
This kind of ending might have worked for the charming but immature alumni of “Kicking and Screaming,” but Roger is just too darn broken for it to work. One still feels pity for children being dragged out of the playground; dragging adults out of that same playground, however, merely evokes contempt.