Will Generation X ever grow up?

Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is a heartfelt film about midlife crisis and relationships amongst an angsty generation.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is a coming-of-middle-age story of the eponymous Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), whose affair with an aspiring singer, 15 years his junior, gives him a new lease of life.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is all New York: a neurotic, self-obsessed hypochondriac devoted to pedestrianism and kvetching. Recently dispatched from a mental hospital, he returns to his hometown, Los Angeles – the land of sunshine, pool parties, farmers’ markets and yoga studios – to ‘do nothing’ while house-sitting for his brother, a Hollywood Hills hotshot who is on a six-week holiday in Vietnam with his wife and kids.

But Greenberg fails on all accounts. His sister-in-law’s 20-year-old daughter throws a mayhem house party, the family dog contracts an auto-immune disorder and a $3000 vet bill, and Greenberg starts up an awkward affair with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s family assistant.

While Greenberg is immersed in a midlife crisis – a failed rock musician turned carpenter wondering where the first half of his life went and what the hell to do with what’s left of it – Florence is approaching her thirties, getting more and more disillusioned as she drifts further away from her college years. Living in a tiny studio apartment, doing the rounds at open-mike nights and trying to get over a failed relationship, Florence is a ditsy, mumbling lost soul prone to putting others before herself.

Greenberg’s old friends are busy running their own businesses, making fancy dress costumes for their kids and going through divorce. When explaining to an old ex that he has decided to come to LA to ‘do nothing for a while’, she responds ‘that’s brave – at our age’.

Greenberg is trying to convince himself, as much as those around him, that being a temporary drifter at 40 is a worthwhile pursuit. It doesn’t have much truck in this circle, where success is measured by whether or not you’ve managed to settle down, have kids and buy a detached house with a swimming pool. Here it’s not so much the rat race as the yummy-mummy race that matters. How long can Greenberg fool himself that settling down to routines is not his dream, too?

Greenberg’s misanthropic cynicism jars with the sun-drenched affluence of his brother and childhood friends. Pondering the ways of the younger generation, his gloomy best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who is staying in a motel as his marriage is failing, observes that youth really is wasted on the young. ‘I’d go further’, responds Greenberg, ‘I’d say life is wasted on people’.

Greenberg’s encounters with the younger generation at once confirms his despondency and salvages his hopes for a life worth living. When it comes to Florence, she is in some sense a younger version of him. Direction-less, socially fallen by the wayside, and filled with hopeless dreams of becoming a singer. But where Greenberg is curmudgeonly, bitter and egotistic, Florence is caring and lets herself be trampled on all too easily. More importantly, she has 15 years either to end up as Greenberg or to make something of her life. While, at first, this is an irritating reminder to Greenberg of what he could have made of his life, it is also a glimmer of hope that eventually rubs off on him.

The twentysomethings who take over Greenberg’s house one night for a drug-fuelled party are also a painful reminder to him that the time of dreaming about the future rather than living in it is over. Their self-assuredness and sense of self-entitlement freaks him out. ‘The thing about you kids’, he tells them, ‘is you’re all kind of insensitive. I’m glad I grew up when I did because your parents were too perfect at parenting, all that Baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs. You’re so sincere and interested in things. There’s a confidence in you guys that’s horrifying.’

Greenberg fancies himself as a person who has learnt about life the hard way. But we don’t really get to know much about his past – apart from the fact that he blew his chance at a record deal and from there, it seems, everything went downhill.

Mainly, Greenberg comes across as a Woody Allen with a humour failure, a New Yorker who hates Manhattan. He channels his anger into petty letters of complaints to ‘evil corporations’: American Airlines’ seats don’t recline properly, Pet-Taxis’ floors are too hard, Starbucks’ has ‘manufactured culture out of fast food’.

Greenberg is a film that explores tensions – between genders, generations and lifestyles. The juxtaposition between New York and LA is pivotal, too. Baumbach wants to challenge the image of LA as a vacuous, celebrity-fixated, silicone-scape and presents it as a real city, a place where you can raise a family and lead a normal life within easy reach of natural beauty. By contrast, when Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer follows his lover to LA in Annie Hall, he is appalled by the health-conscious, mantra-chanting Californians and can’t wait to get back to the Big Apple. Here, however, LA is Greenberg’s path to happiness.

Greenberg is a believable and considered film about the ageing Generation X, preoccupied with self-fulfilment, therapy and political correctness. It shows a world filled with the people that the term ‘the worried well’ was invented for. But you get the feeling that rather than recognising the limits that this navel-gazing generation’s lifestyle has come up against, Baumbach is trying to salvage it.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

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