Tack on something that seems like it could be meaningful
Noah Baumbach
Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh
The Setup: 
Portrait of the smug narcissistic asshole as an aging man.

I wasn’t as blown away by The Squid and the Whale as many others—though it has undeniable strengths—and the trailers gave me no interest in seeing this one. Then there were articles when it was out about how it was really riling people up because the main character is such an asshole, and I became a little interested, but couldn’t convince any of my friends to go. Now I’ve seen it, and enjoyed it and it gave me a lot to think about, but it again demonstrates both writer/director Noah Baumbach’s strengths and weaknesses.

We open with Greta Gerwig as Florence driving, looking at an unseen driver and saying “Are you going to let me in?” In Baumbach’s straight-from-the-writing-workshop dialogue, a line like that never has only one meaning, especially when the first line in a film. She’s the assistant to a family that is going to Vietnam for six weeks, and tells them it’s okay that they haven’t paid her in three weeks. In the next scene she has to borrow $40 from a friend. They also tell her that the husband’s brother is going to stay in the house while they’re gone—this is Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg.

He’s 40, his hair is graying and just a smidge wrong in every way, he applies chapstick every few minutes [which I found a hilariously inspired character trait—I NEVER want to see anyone applying chapstick! Something seems vaguely unpleasant about it], and he grew up there in L.A., then moved to New York, where he’s been since. He ended up working as a carpenter at a space he shares in Bushwick [living in New York now, I am laughing my ass off at details like this], and we learn that he recently emerged from a mental health facility. He runs into Florence when she comes to pick up her check—and we see him throw a song on just before she comes in, one that he attempt to make conversation about, but she’s too young, at 25, and doesn’t recognize it.

He calls his friend Ivan, played by Rhys Ifans, and they hang out a bit. Ivan is going through a divorce, and used to have issues with drinking and drugs—which doesn’t stop Greenberg from continually offering him drinks or wanting to go hang out in bars. Greenberg goes to a party where he runs into a lot of his old friends—now mostly parents with children and divorces of their own. Further awkwardness ensues. One piquant scene features Greenberg meeting with one-third of his former music group [Ivan being the other third], who is still pissed that Greenberg made them all turn down a record contract with a major label because it was all “corporate bullshit.” The friend says he’s amazed Ivan even still speaks to him.

Meanwhile Greenberg is having this messed-up, psychologically-abusive sorta-relationship with Florence. She emerges as an aimless pleaser who doesn’t really know what she wants and lets herself be dragged into things she isn’t sure about, because ultimately she’s not sure about anything. Her character is a tiny bit one-note, but Greta Gerwig runs with her and emerges as the best thing by far about this movie. She’s completely believable and truly ALIVE in this movie—there’s no sense that she’s acting at all. I had only seen her in House of the Devil, where she was okay but nothing like as perfect as she is here—she deserves to be a star. While we’re at it, Stiller is very, very good in his role—one can easily forget that he can act, and quite well, when he wants to—and, well, who knew that Rhys Ifans is the coolest actor alive? Did you know that? I didn’t.

Anyway, let’s have some more of Greenberg being an asshole before we take a break to discuss. His brother’s dog gets sick and has to be taken to the vet—which Greenberg needs Florence to help with because he doesn’t drive! A key scene comes when he’s on the phone to his brother and says the problem is something with “the red or white blood cells,” and when the brother says that it’s important to know which, Greenberg says “Yeah, well it’s not MY dog!” Which makes sense, right? I mean, you can’t expect him to care about anything that’s not HIS, right? That’s totally justifiable. Then when the brother starts yelling at him, he uses the hand the phone is in to scratch his head—i.e. holding the phone away from his ear, not listening. Okay, let’s discuss.

At this point, I was finding the movie hilarious because Greenberg is SUCH a recognizable New York type—or rather a type that is DRAWN to New York—and every time he was an egregious asshole I was laughing uproariously. I know a few Greenbergs myself [it has been SO hard not to call my boss “Greenberg” today], and I see more than a little bit of him in myself—and I suspect there’s more than a smidge in Baumbach as well. These guys who are smart and realize that the world is idiotic and ruled by marketing—and that most people are mindless sheep—yet who run the danger of just becoming so superior and above it all that they alienate everyone in their life.

THEY know the right music to listen to. THEY know how people should act. THEY know what’s important in life and what’s just bullshit. Etc. And when they’re younger these people can be quite magnetic—because often they ARE clued into what’s really going on and cool music, etc.,--but it’s very easy for them to become too insulated in their own world and begin to devalue everyone else. I found it a hilarious detail that Greenberg is a carpenter, because I can just see the moment when he decides he doesn’t want to pursue some “bullshit degree” and “play the whole job game” and just wants to do something simple and enduring and no-bullshit where he works with his HANDS and has a SKILL. The whole focus on music also rang very true, with Greenberg feeling that he and he alone knows the best music to listen to, without having the distance to know it means something to him because it hit HIM at a certain moment, and that the music that hits younger people at that same time in their lives is every bit as meaningful to them.

In this way the movie is the spiritual cousin of Ghost World, which is also about a character who doesn’t want to participate in the world because she sees what bullshit it all is, and faces obsolescence within her own world because she doesn’t want to participate. What that movie does a bit better than this one is acknowledge that in many ways its character is RIGHT—the world IS bullshit! And it IS a very sensible, very understandable reaction to refuse to participate. Greenberg takes a less nuanced, more critical [and perhaps a touch condescending] attitude toward its main character. For example, it portrays Greenberg as an out-of-touch crank for writing letters of complaint to various businesses—but what, is it better to be the person who just says “Yeah, well what can ya do?” and takes it? And allows it to continue? That’s the problem Ghost World took up and dealt with—that the world sucks, but if you don’t participate in it, you get left behind. Greenberg points at an issue, but doesn’t really care to resolve, or really even make a statement about it.

As the film goes on, Greenberg starts to get a sense that people don’t really like him very much, and don’t want to hang around with him. He has a lunch date with Jennifer Jason Leigh, who he used to date, and asks if they should have another date. She says no, that would be a really bad idea, then REALLY wants to get the check RIGHT now. The would-be climax of the film takes place when his older niece [maybe 19?] returns to the house and has a party with her young friends. Greenberg takes some coke and a vicodin and smokes some grass and gets pretty fucked up, insisting that the kids listen to Duran Duran’s Rio [“This is great coke music!”], and giving a long ramble about how kids their age don’t care about anything and are insensitive. This should have been a powerful moment and gives the film opportunity to make a statement, but it’s just an empty ramble. I mean—I suspect the point is that Greenberg’s thoughts on this topic are a senseless ramble—what I’m saying is that the scene ends up just kind of dead and meandering when one suspects it’s supposed to be important. There is a good moment a bit later when Ivan finally reaches his fill and simply has to walk away.

There's a last bit about how he's going to impulsively run off to Australia, dumping his brother's dog on their neighbor--love it--but it didn't have much impact for me. When he was drunk he left a message for Florence that kind of said he liked her and kind of apologized, and in the last scene he brings her home from the hospital and tells her he left her a message. She goes through her messages, saying "This is my mom... this is my friend..." then, for a significant finish: "This is you." Then--credits!

My feeling when I finished The Squid and the Whale was that it was very creative writing class writing. Like all just very pre-approved "good" writing without much life or surprise. The ending here reminded me of when I used to write short stories that were "literary," and you learn very quickly that when you aren't sure what to do at the end, you can just tack on something that could be taken as kind of ironic or meaningful, then end quickly to let the reader think about it. That's what I thought when we cut to black right after the super-meaningful "this is you." And, yes, it continues to be very creative writing class writing.

So ultimately, this is a good character study, of an interesting and very contemporary kind of character, which makes it interesting. On the minus side, this means that the last half hour just kind of peters out. I think the party with the younger kids and the impulse to run away Australia were supposed to have more impact than they did, but since they don't, the whole thing just kind of dribbles to a halt. But the character study is almost enough to make up for it. But still, Ghost World did it first, and Ghost World had a real ending. Greenberg is a great, very true-to-life character. But he needs a better film.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, you should still probably watch it, especially if you're in the 40-something demographic it covers, but still, if you haven't seen Ghost World, I would ditch this in favor of that.