The problem with pain is that it’s not only a morbid feeling but it’s also reoccurring. Helmets and safety belts are only one of the many ways to prevent physical injury, but it’s emotional pain that stings the most. Sadly, not only is emotional distress a common aspect of our lives, it’s also extremely hard to prevent and this is the reason that we, as humans, create defense mechanisms which range from stoicism to false realities.
Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” presents an intriguing look at several defense mechanisms, and though it is low on plot, the interactions between the film’s troubled characters are enough to make “Greenberg” shine.
Ben Stiller’s character Roger Greenberg is introduced with almost no back-story. Besides from knowing that he was institutionalized in a mental facility and the fact that he declined a record deal thus ruining his band’s chance of fame, we know nothing about him. But it is obvious that he’s in pain and this is the most important aspect of his character. From his introductory scene, where he asks his brother’s assistant to get him whiskey and ice cream sandwiches, it is undeniable that Greenberg is closeting something dark.
In order to prevent further pain, Roger creates a persona of narcissism and mean-spiritedness. He insults everyone from young college students to Starbucks restaurants to his best friend, Ivan. This is why when Greenberg opens up to Florence Marr, his brother’s assistant, it feels genuine and Greta Gerwig’s brilliant performance as Florence definately boosts the believability.
But just because Greenberg is so troubled doesn’t mean that Florence or the rest of the characters are perfect. At one point of the film, Florence invites Greenberg to her home and tells him a story about a night where she pretended to be someone else “as a joke.” She points out that the night of strip-teasing cannot be a judgment of her character, but it wasn’t really her doing it but Greenberg just asks “what’s the point of this story?”
This seemingly random recollection on Florence’s behalf is not as random as it first seems. In essence, it presents her character as a whole. Just like Greenberg, she has a defense mechanism and it’s her false persona. At day, Florence is just an assistant but when she leaves work, she indulges in mindless sex under the pretense that it’s not “her” doing it.
Perhaps the most damaged character is Beth, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Beth doesn’t appear on-screen as often as Florence or Greenberg, but she is presented as someone is already distraught by pain and thus does not need a defense mechanism.
On the other hand, Ivan Schrank (played by Rhys Ifans), is at first presented as the antithesis to these emotionally chained characters. As Greenberg’s only friend, Ivan shows himself to be forgiving for Roger’s decision to decline the record deal — which forced Ivan to become a computer technician instead of a popular musician — and he is always supportive of Greenberg, even past his immature behavior. But Ivan’s defense mechanism is simply the most concealed and that veil is slowly pulled off the character, thus revealing his victim-complex. In doing so, Baumbach further shows that everyone has a unique way of coping with the hardships of pain.
None of these characters are the most likable, and though Stiller gives one of the best performances of his career, the film’s leading character, Roger Greenberg, is anything but charismatic. But it’s these insecure and hurt entities that make “Greenberg” so interesting. These unique personalities are all part of a grand scheme of things and Baumbach brilliantly uses them to prove the dangers of giving up in a “life never planned on.”
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