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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Overcast
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A loser takes stock of his life in Greenberg
Doing nothing
It's a refreshingly serious role for Stiller.
It's a refreshingly serious role for Stiller.

Noah Baumbach keeps making movies about me. In 1995, when I was a smug would-be esthete still hanging around my college neighborhood, I saw the writer-director's debut feature Kicking and Screaming, about smug would-be esthetes still hanging around their college neighborhood. In 2005 he emerged with the autobiographical The Squid and the Whale, about adolescent brothers dealing with their bourgeois parents' (check) divorce in the 1980s (check).

And now comes Greenberg, about a man, played by Ben Stiller, who could be one of the young graduates of Kicking and Screaming, two decades later. Figuratively at least, he's still hanging around his college neighborhood, talking about 1980s movies and fretting about choices he made in his early 20s. There is one important difference between Roger Greenberg and me, though. As the film begins he is 40, whereas I am only 39.

Roger is bright and articulate, but he languishes. He looks on uncomprehendingly as friends and loved ones work and raise their kids. Roger is stuck ("I'm trying to do nothing for a while," he keeps saying), and the reward for watching 107 minutes' worth of his languishing is the whisper of the promise of the hope that he is, maybe, slightly less stuck. Stiller is rumpled and shaggy in the role, a performance that is refreshingly serious for this smart actor who, too often these days, shows up in broadly comic dreck.

We also meet Florence (mumblecore veteran Greta Gerwig), the young, attractive personal assistant of Roger's wealthy brother, who lives with his family in a tastefully cluttered Los Angeles manse. The family leaves for a six-week trip to Vietnam, and Roger flies from New York to look after the house and dog. He has just, the family discloses to Florence, gotten out of a mental institution.

Roger does not drive, and Florence runs errands for him. One of the film's drollest gags comes when she asks him to make out a shopping list, and he jots down just two items: Whiskey. Ice cream sandwiches. Soon the two are hugging and kissing, and Roger administers what must surely be the mainstream cinema's most awkward act of oral sex. Florence is as unhappy as Roger, if marginally more competent at the business of living, and their uneasy courtship is the main story here.

But the film is more about character than storytelling. In his 20s Roger was a musician on the verge of success, and returning to Los Angeles means revisiting his failures. He meets an old girlfriend, played by wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is Baumbach's wife and has story and producer credits. She is divorced with kids, and she gently, compassionately brushes Roger off when he makes a romantic overture.

And he meets musicians from his old band, who still resent him for turning down a record deal many years earlier. Among the musicians he especially reconnects with loyal, sad-eyed Ivan (Rhys Ifans). "In college we all looked up to him," Roger says. But Ivan ended up in rehab, and now he tinkers with computers and tries to keep his family together.

Aching truths emerge about pathetic Roger in a series of deceptively low-key scenes. When the dog gets sick, Roger's heated phone conversation with his brother, far away in Vietnam, inevitably turns to the trauma of their mother's illness and death. In a stab at conviviality Roger throws a pool party, but he's disappointed at how the hastily organized event turns out.

All of this is hard to watch, and it comes courtesy of a filmmaker who, I'd argue, has captured the Generation X experience better than anyone. Remember Generation X? Richard Linklater rendered the first definitive cinematic take on it with 1991's Slacker, about young Austinites with lots of time to read, write and debate. And Stiller himself made the slickly exploitative Reality Bites, in which Ethan Hawke's character emerged as a 1990s Gen-X archetype: the glib loser who riffs on The Brady Bunch and reads Heidegger.

But with Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, it's Baumbach who keeps holding up the mirror to me and my cohort, mostly white, mostly educated Americans who grew up, to use Douglas Coupland's useful ethnography, playing either Atari or the Nintendo Entertainment System. Baumbach is chronicling a generation's slow, painful awakening.

In our 20s we hid behind irony, like the Kicking and Screaming characters. What were we hiding? Pain, of course, including the pain of growing up at the dawn of the age of divorce, as depicted in The Squid and the Whale. Like the members of Roger's band and their failed record deal, we wanted quick wealth and success. We got it with the dot-com boom, but that didn't last, and now, veering headlong toward our 40s and beyond, we're finally, maybe, thinking about What All This Means.

At least it seems Baumbach is, which is why, at a climactic moment in Greenberg, he has Ivan deliver the film's thesis statement: "It's nice to finally embrace the life you never planned on." The insight is a little pat (that's a Baumbach tic), but for the most part Greenberg is a rich film, and a pretty solemn one. Frankly, I didn't enjoy a lot of it, because the characters are so unpleasant. But in its cunning way, it builds to a very satisfying conclusion.

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