Why do we put up with the narcissists and misanthropes who populate Noah Baumbach films like Greenberg?

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March 18 2010 12:47 PM

The Jerks

Why do we put up with the narcissists, misanthropes, and passive-aggressives who populate Noah Baumbach's films?

Also in Slate, Jessica Grose breaks down the types of omega males  and calls Greenberg a "liberal arts layabout."

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A semiautobiographical portrait of a splintering Brooklyn family, The Squid and the Whale is the Baumbach film in which the perils of over-identification are most poignant. Though young Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is literally sprinting away from his father's influences by the finale, for most of the film he idealizes Bernard: lapping up his line on the divorce (all Mom's fault), letting him tag along on dates, and internalizing his literary tastes so credulously that he doesn't feel compelled to read the books in question. (Walt describes The Metamorphosis to a classmate as "Kafka-esque.") Roger Greenberg has a mentoring streak, too: In his first encounter with Florence, he plays Albert Hammond's '70s soft-rock hit "It Never Rains in Southern California" and explains, "You have to see past the kitsch." (One can picture Walt Berkman testing that line on a girl in a dorm room some sultry night.) Even the mix CD Roger burns for Florence smacks of pedantry—a way to make up her mind, so that talking to Florence feels like talking to himself.

Baumbach's characters (the men especially) feel safest when they're putting thoughts and experience between quotation marks; the burden is on others to hop onto their ironic wavelength, to "get it." In Margot at the Wedding, Margot's future brother-in-law Malcolm (Jack Black) grows a cheesy mustache that's "supposed to be funny"; in Greenberg, Roger clarifies that he and Ivan address each other as "Man" because "that's what other people say." Squid's Bernard can turn a medical crisis into a movie reference: As he's loaded onto an ambulance after a heart scare, he quotes the famously ambiguous last scene from Godard's Breathless, then explicates the citation to his puzzled audience.

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A Baumbach protagonist wears his pretensions like armor, but the pose of detachment is also the stance of the fiction writer or critic (incidentally, Baumbach is the son of both), who benefits from a ruthless facility for treating events and people as potential content to be appropriated or evaluated. Kicking and Screaming and Margot at the Wedding both feature skirmishes over rights to real-life material ("We'll see who gets it first," Grover tells his girlfriend sternly), but the instinct extends past the page. In The Squid and the Whale, Walt presses pause on a makeout session with his endearingly Florence-like girlfriend, Sophie (Halley Feiffer), to comment that she has too many freckles on her face. In Margot at the Wedding, Margot scrutinizes her son Claude (Zane Pais) like a casting agent, cringing at his new sunglasses ("They make your face look too wide") and lamenting the loss of his "more graceful" pre-pubescent body. (One shudders to think of Margot with a daughter.) The heart sinks, not least because Baumbach grasps that such offhand cruelty is born of sad isolation. When everyone around you is just a canvas for your own insecurities and pathologies, can you be any lonelier?

There's another problem with treating the people in your life as short-story fodder or as characters in the movie unspooling in your mind: They might start thinking for themselves and reciting lines you didn't write for them. When Greenberg's Florence says that she likes spending time with Roger, his response is apoplectic: "You don't like it!" he screams. It's an absurd outburst, but one that a narcissist consumed with self-loathing feels in his blood and bones. He can't imagine anyone not thinking what he's thinking—and haven't so many of us been there, at least once or twice in our lives? Baumbach's malcontents may drive us crazy, but they always retain a measure of sympathy and humanity because they are extreme manifestations of a universal dilemma: the impossibility of escaping one's own head.

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