I went to see a couple of American pictures last week, and I was quite convinced that I would talk about one of them, Life during wartime by Todd Solondz, but it turns out (as it often happens in life, when you expect one thing and you get another) that I prefer to talk about Greenberg by Noah Baumbach.
I always thought that cinema is one of the best cures against loneliness. You sit down in a place together with other people (and already this means that you are not alone in this world), and sometimes, as a nice bonus, you see on screen a character whose life, whose thoughts, whose ideas say so much to you and/or to what you are going through in a particular moment of your life, that you immediately feel less lost. I don’t know exactly at which point of your life you can consider yourself when you feel very close to a character played by Ben Stiller who’s just got out from a mental hospital (probably not the best one of your entire existence), but that’s what happened to me the other day.
Roger Greenberg is a forty something, once a musician now a carpenter, who arrives from New York to Los Angeles to spend few weeks at his brother’s place (while he and his family are on holiday in Vietnam). Besides taking care of a dog and building a little doghouse, Roger has nothing to do. This gives him plenty of time to catch up with some old mates (he has been living in Los Angeles before moving to the Big Apple 15 years before) and even with his ex-girlfriend, Beth. This also gives him the opportunity to meet Florence, the personal assistant of his brother, with whom he starts a weird relationship. Through different events, Roger’s complex personality and various problems (he has spent some time in a mental institution before his trip to LA) become quite clear to everybody (audience included). In particular, the discussions with Ivan, his oldest friend, oblige Roger to call his past and his decisions into question. The final results of this painful process are probably not the ones he was hoping for, but Greenberg eventually finds the strength to start a new (and happier?) phase of his life.
Noah Baumbach is a very subtle and brilliant film-maker (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the wedding) and screenwriter (his has written two movies together with Wes Anderson), but I think Greenberg is his most mature and compelling work (the story has been created together with his wife, actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh, who also plays Beth in the movie).
Greenberg, the best performance of Ben Stiller’s caree, is not a very nice person. He is gloomy, unsocial, unfriendly, self-centred, complicated. His life is a mess. At 40, he has no family, no relationship, no real job and not many friends. He is not at ease with world and the world is not at ease with him (the letters of complaint he is writing all along the movie to different American companies are hilarious but also quite disturbing). He wants to better understand his past hoping that this will help him to better understand his present, but his clumsy attempts to do so turn into failures (the scene where he says to his ex-girlfriend that they could have had children together many years before and she looks at him in disbelief is a good example). Florence’s character (beautifully played by new-comer Greta Gerwig) is completely different: she is naïve, generous, friendly, curious, and cheerful. She is a mess too, but she has the right to be a mess: she is young. She is also the one who immediately understands Greenberg’s real nature and his fragility (and loves him for that). And I can’t forget to mention Ivan (great, great, great Rhys Ifans, I love this actor!), the perfect counter-balance to Greenberg’s incapability of accepting changes imposed by ageing.
I have seen this picture with some (younger) friends and I was absolutely aware, since the very beginning, that we were looking two different movies or, at least, that my perception of this movie would have been completely different from theirs.
The difference lies in our gap of 15 years (this was especially clear when, at Greenberg’s idea of having Duran Duran as the perfect music for a coke party, I madly laughed and they didn’t).
Of course! They are twenty something, they still have to make one of those fatal mistakes you pay very high, and they still have to take one of those bad decisions, the ones able to ruin your career or your private life.
At forty, well, you usually had the chance to have made at least one of those stupid things.
So, while they were probably trying to understand the meaning of Ivan’s statement: Life is wasted on young!, I was already agreeing to Greenberg’s bitter reply: Life is wasted on people!