"By understanding the way your mind works, you can make yourself memorable to others." — Jonathan Hancock
Through the character he plays in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg (2010), Ben Stiller revisits the chronic anxiety and vexed physique that most of his roles include, even the most apparently benevolent ones. With a dialogue-driven script based on a story written by Baumbach and his wife, actress/producer Jennifer Jason-Leigh, the film is enhanced by the semi-lucent cinematography of Harris Savides (Zodiac, Margot at the Wedding, Milk) whose tonality echoes '70s auteur cinema. Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, an addled former mental patient who travels to Hollywood from New York to house sit for his wealthy brother Phillip (Chris Messina) in Hollywood Hills.
"Close examination of a man's behaviour reveals a powerfully masochistic, self-hating, and often pathetically self-destructive style," wrote Herb Goldberg in The New Male (1979).
Greenberg becomes an iconic oeuvre of style for both Baumbach as filmmaker and Stiller as performer. The story moves along by way of abrupt conversations and a very realistically indie atmosphere, filled with original music by James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem, Galaxie 500, Sonics, among others.
In fact, one of the main motifs for Roger Greenberg of relating to other people is talking about forgotten folk singers and bands, encouraging his brother's family's assistant Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) "to see past the kitsch" when he plays "It Never Rains in Southern California" or when he argues with a group of college students at a party about the importance of throwing Duran Duran ("The Chauffeur") into a druggy mix. He finds ex-bandmate Eric's (Mark Duplass) CD collection offensive ("at a certain point, you're just showing off," he says, criticizing Eric's musical snobbism.)
Attending a party in Laurel Canyon, Roger notices that his former partners and friends tend to avoid his awkward approach. He confesses to his old flame Beth that he is "really trying to do nothing" while sweating profusely. She is a mother of two (dressed at the party as Flash and a princess) and she has moved on after divorcing a less Jewish version of Greenberg, although Roger protests he's only half-Jewish. Greenberg says to Beth that Leonard Maltin would give him two and a half stars in his movie guide. She's just struggling with her new life and her voice sounds exhausted.
Roger is an emotional abuser who doesn't identify as the abuser (he internalizes his panic and he sees himself more as the abused by a mimetic "preening" society) of the few people who can stand his sour company, staying in a permanent waylaid state, picking at their failures in life without compassion at the moment. Then he usually feels guilty about his mistreatment but the audience starts to see it could be too late for him to realize and stop his aggression before he ends up completely alone in an inevitable downfall.
Thinking about it, even the humor (the source of Stiller's mainstream fame) is typically aggressive and even conveniently misanthropic. On his 41st birthday Roger blurts out "Life is wasted on people," and minutes later he impulsively invites Florence to a restaurant. When she shows up, Roger immediately leaves the table to telephone his old girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) to ask her for a date.
Florence, an aspiring singer who performs for sparse audiences in small clubs, is happy to meet Roger's bandmate Ivan and listen to tales of their defunct group Magic Marker. It was Roger's decision to not sign a promising record contract which would probably have catapulted the band to a moderate commercial stardom, but Roger's stubbornness and mistrust stalled the deal. And that controversial decision has haunted him for excruciatingly long years.
Candy says I hate the big decisions
That cause endless revisions in my mind. — Lou Reed, "Candy Says"
Here Stiller (whose physical appearance gives us a whiff of rock star Lou Reed) looks very emaciated and disillusioned, a self-proclaimed vigilante of good customer service (penning petty letters to American Airlines, Starbucks, and the New York Times), fighting his imaginary cause against a corporate identity whom he identifies as a viral threat. Between raging protest letters he finds time to take care of Mahler, a German shepherd in need of medication for an autoimmune disorder.
Roger is addicted to using cherry-flavored ChapStick and he only has one real friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who feels trapped in a new occupation as computer technician and is estranged from the Portuguese wife with whom he has a son. Roger acts nonchalantly toward Ivan's domestic vicissitudes because maybe he thinks he's keeping from falling down into the same mediocrity hole as his buddy. His interactions with Ivan are frustrating, their conversations resultingly loopy. Ivan will complain they never talk about good things or help each other.
Roger: I feel like I have those glasses from that John Carpenter movie and I can see who these people really are.
Ivan: That wasn't bad, that movie.
Roger: I thought it was terrible.
Ivan is an ex-stoner, cutting down on his old vices, and prefers iced tea over Scotch these days. He's needy and resentful about the past, but he's ready to "embrace the life you never planned on."
Roger puts on his best clothes and shows up ludicrously mincing on his date with Beth, where he is the only who seems to remember the important moments of their romance. But she's not impressed by his rambling speech where he randomly talks about mattresses, shrinks, his new career (he chose carpentry), and he asks her for another date, which she declines, visibly alarmed.
Roger Greenberg makes a list for Florence to shop with two essential items: whiskey and ice cream sandwiches. In his essay "The Great Rememberer," Allen Ginsberg refers to the scene in Visions of Cody and implies a connection between Kerouac's retreat into alcohol and his inability to accept love in general. Martin Duberman's play Visions of Kerouac makes a similar point describing Kerouac as trapped in "lumberjack tears… a buried and bereft American man."
Impervious to some of Florence's affectionate advances, Greenberg gives her a mix CD because his heart resists acknowledging romantic feelings, making her feel vulnerable. Their relationship is manifestly painful, but Baumbach represents it in a dark, quirky light, putting a humorous spin on it.
Stiller's jocular genius lies in the low-key performance which he favors over dramatic pathos, accentuating his character's shadows and moral warts. When he gets high (with Zoloft and coke, although Roger says he hates the coke politically) at his step-niece Sara's (Brie Larson) party in the company of her Australian friend Muriel (Juno Temple) he takes on a modern bunch of detached hipster kids and we can feel he's shut off from the Internet sex trends and the iPod generation and their "blithe air." Roger accuses all of them of insensitivity and horrifying confidence ("I hope I die before I meet one of you in a job interview").
Stiller balances empathy and necessary coldness in his performance, which is more than meets the eye, as is proven in an intimidating scene when there is a dead animal floating on the swimming pool at his brother's house, similar to an opossum (these small omnivores can mimic the appearance of a sick or dead animal; many injured opossums have been killed mistaken for dead). Roger's psychological response is involuntary when the eye of the rat/opossum stares back at him. That's another fitting metaphor from Baumbach in an already disturbing story.
I feel like a possum in every way
Like a possum
My mind's amiss, I've lost the kiss
My smile is leaden, my gait is rubber
And I say as one possum to another
Like a possum. — Lou Reed, "Like a Possum"
Is Roger just a guy with good intentions (as Stiller thought of his scripted character) beneath a cynical exterior, a 21st century's new type of anti-hero perhaps? “I think it’s a really noble struggle,” he said to the New York Times, “imperfect people trying to get through every day of their lives.”
"I get so angry about the world, you know… If I knew who to write a letter to about the stupidity in the world, I'd do it!" — Roger Greenberg bares his soul via his phone message to Florence.
Greta Gerwig's performance shines uninterruptedly amidst the obscurity that emanates from Stiller's. She knows hurt people hurt people, she has made two stick puppets (a witch and a devil), she gets hiccups when she drinks carbonated beverages; her first encounter with Roger sharing a Corona belongs on the list of top awkward make-outs. This will be the big breakout role for Gerwig, who had previously been an indie mumblecore queen in New York, starring in films like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008) directed by Joe Swanberg.
Florence: Do you think you could love me?
Roger: I don't know, Florence.
Florence: I like seeing you.
Roger: No, you don't… you don't like it.
In Flirting with Disaster (1996) Stiller played Mel Coplin, a neurotic entomologist who, despite of being married to Nancy (Patricia Arquette), is attracted to an adoption worker, Tina Kalb (Tea Leoni). When things heat up he tries to offer his wife Nancy an apology at the airport:
Mel: Listen, I feel like I owe you an apology about last night. Because, you know, there's two sides to everything.
Nancy: That doesn't sound like an apology.
In Greenberg we hear his clumsy attempt to reconcile with Florence after having verbally abused her the night before:
Roger: I'm apologizing for my side of it.
Florence: That's not an apology.
Ben Stiller has considered himself pretty angsty and a recovering obsessive. His anxious shtick and blue goo-goo eyes have won him a position of honor in mainstream comedy. His figure is a fascinating crossover of show business-man and vocational satirist.
Stiller isn't a neophyte in the drama field — he played Chas Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson's (collaborator with Baumbach in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox) The Royal Tenenbaums (2007).
And before in 1998 he played Jerry, obsessed with sex talk in Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors and in David Veloz's Permanent Midnight he plays real-life figure Jerry Stahl. Stiller's filmography is so prolific and interconnected we could trace a line of character common in most of his performances.
Although very different from Stiller's usual shy Everyman, Stahl represents a contradiction too: he has "miscalculated" moving to L.A., he's alternatively cocky and self-deprecating, he's a screenwriter for ALF and Moonlighting but he needs to stick a needle in his veins to transform into "a real stud." His self-destructive compulsion is paradoxically relieved with cynical humor: "I was sentimental after cleaning mom's blood out of the carpet"… "People always ask, 'What's the worst thing heroin drove you to do?' I always answer, 'Showing up on Maury'."
Ben Stiller understands humor mustn't configurate always on a simple accessible fun level. "Drama doesn't scare me," he's said. "I think comedy is much scarier."
Humor is sometimes subversive, aggressive, and wrong, as are addictions, manic disorders, derangement, and meltdowns. Therefore there could be an unsafe, even suicidal component in unadultered humor. But Stiller provides a protective wall when his characters act scary; he's one of the few comedians who dare to install figuratively the wall that separates naïvety from satire, fear from reality.