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The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
by TYLER COATES
dir. Noah Baumbach
First, I should say that I love all of Noah Baumbach's films (with the exception of his collaborations with Wes Anderson, which don't really feel like Baumbach films anyway). I knew that I'd love Greenberg before I went into the movie, and I also knew that I'd have some opinions once I left the theater, considering that the movie has been a hot topic among bloggers of a certain age — that age roughly being the very wide range of twenty-five to thirty-five.
I think a pretty good assessment of Baumbach's oeuvre is that his movies are populated with assholes. They're charming assholes in his first feature, Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell one, obvs., which I'm sure also has its fair share of jerks); that's the one I most relate to, clearly, as I am younger than thirty and until then will consider myself "fresh out of college" (although I, like Greenberg's Florence, have been out of college for about the same amount of time as I was in college). Recent college graduates almost have a free pass to be shitheads since they're too young and immature to really understand how the world works, which is another reason I'm apt to include myself in that demographic.
As Baumbach has gotten older, his characters have become less sympathetic as they, too, have reached the age where considerate behavior should be the norm. His protagonists in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding aren't sympathetic; they're pretty despicable people. I've heard people criticize those films (the latter especially) for being too focused on the petty aspects of self-indulgent, bourgeois white people. Well, sure!
Would we expect Noah Baumbach to write films about characters of the lower-class or of minority groups? I'd rather not see that, because I think they'd actually be offensive. But, still, white people have problems, and I relate to that as a white person with predictable and insufferably insipid problems. (But I like The Wire! Right?!)
Baumbach's films aren't offensive, of course — his characters are. It strikes me as slightly odd that people can hate a film because they don't like the main characters "as people." I certainly wouldn't want to hang around titular Margot or Bernard from The Squid and the Whale. I also don't want to know Patrick Bateman, either, but people certainly do love the shit out of American Psycho (probably because Bateman doesn't talk about his feelings after he murders people).
The same goes for Roger Greenberg, the forty-year-old man child played by Ben Stiller (who, per usual, rubbed me the wrong way; it doesn't matter if he's playing Greenberg or Zoolander — I just don't like him). I probably wouldn't have liked him very much if Baumbach had made him at all sympathetic (which, ultimately, he did not). But really, let's avoid that discussion; arguing over feeling empathy for a fictional character is very undergraduate. I had enough of this when I read High Fidelity for ENG 365: Contemporary British Novel.
Instead, let's talk about Florence, played by mumblecore actress (not my words — go read every other review of this film) Greta Gerwig. Both Gerwig and Florence are superb. Florence is a dynamic character (which is fresh for the female love interest of a lost / hopeless male protagonist!); she's smart, she's responsible, she's both happy and sad, she enjoys sex while hating the inevitable ramifications of it. And Gerwig makes Florence realistic because (and forgive me for Liz Lemmoning her right now) she's a relatively ordinary-looking actress.
It's too easy to label Greenberg as a misogynist. He doesn't hate women, he hates everyone, including himself, but he wouldn't admit it — he may come close to it in a self-deprecating way, but, as Edith Wharton writes in The House of Mirth, his outer self-deprecation is in proportion to his self-possessiveness. He's very sociopathic, rejecting connections with most of the people around him. I don't believe that his inabilities to form relationships are the result of anything other than the fact that he, as a human, is flawed, as most of us are.
I can't dispute the claims that he is self-indulgent and wrapped up in the petty problems of his bourgeois lifestyle. The great irony, of course, is that I am a white blogger who is publishing my self-indulgent reaction to a film featuring a realistically offensive protagonist. It's pretty rare when people can acknowledge the assholic (it's a word!) tendencies within themselves. (That is a statement that I do not intend to be a smug declaration.) Maybe that's why I relate to and appreciate Greenberg and the rest of Noah Baumbach's films so much: in his world, pretty much everyone is an asshole.
Tyler Coates is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Chicago. He tumbls here.
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