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."

Noah Baumbach. Click image to expand.
Noah Baumbach

A clever fillip of therapy-speak pops up a couple of times in Greenberg, the new movie by Noah Baumbach: "Hurt people hurt people." (The first hurt is an adjective, the second a verb.) The phrase could also double as an epigraph for the writer-director's entire filmography. No American auteur is more attuned to the art of emotional warfare, and none has more intestinal fortitude for placing neurotic, infuriating, occasionally insufferable characters on-screen and daring us to relate to them. While other directors draw from a more palatable menu of character attributes (charm, charisma, chemistry …), Baumbach makes his cinematic home among the narcissists, misanthropes, and passive-aggressives. Which may leave some viewers wondering: If these are the hard cases whom we give a wide berth in real life, why would we want to spend two hours with them in the close quarters of a movie theater?

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

Consider, for example, the petulant misfit Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a 40-year-old carpenter who's taking a post-breakdown sabbatical by housesitting for his wealthy brother in Los Angeles. He's not the most appalling protagonist Baumbach has ever conjured—that honor still belongs to Nicole Kidman's venomous title character in Margot at the Wedding (2007). But Roger does exhibit all the symptoms of an emblematic Baumbach creature: lacking a filter between his thoughts and words, arrogant yet cripplingly insecure, forever aggrieved (Roger writes endless letters of complaint to Starbucks, American Airlines, and other corporate entities that displease him) and forever giving grief. He pursues a listless affair with his brother's personal assistant, the sweetly diffident Florence (Greta Gerwig), and uneasily reconnects with his old friend and former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans); the way Roger both clings to and abuses these two lovely people is a window on his gnarled and vividly Baumbachian inner life. But the filmmaker also tries to locate our empathy for Roger, or even our love—albeit a rueful, against-your-better-judgment love, the kind you feel for the sibling who's a walking DSM-IV or the trainwreck college friend whom you just can't shake.

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Painfully adrift and still mortified that he sabotaged his band's only shot at a record deal some 15 years back, Roger has an embarrassingly protracted strain of the post-college angst that Baumbach explored in the spiky comedy Kicking and Screaming (1995). The director's debut feature is set among a flinty, hyper-verbose clique of twentysomethings who seem, like Roger, perpetually annoyed: The comforts of a shared history have curdled into claustrophobia, and the candor of tight camaraderie has begun to shade into nastiness. One friend hisses at another, "We've developed such a weak, pathetic familiarity that talking to you is like talking to myself"—an insult that stings only if the speaker feels weak and pathetic himself.

Baumbach's characters are plagued by that bugaboo of the therapist's office: a lack of boundaries. There's no fixed borderline between self and other (in 1997's Mr. Jealousy, Eric Stoltz assumes a friend's identity to infiltrate a therapy group, of all things) and certainly no checkpoint between brain and mouth. In Kicking and Screaming, a recently divorced dad played by Elliott Gould blathers to his mortified son, Grover (Josh Hamilton), about losing his erection on a date. This queasy blast of fatherly TMI seems almost tame compared to the transgressions of fading novelist Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) in The Squid and the Whale (2005). It's one thing to invite your teenage son to sit in on your writing class the day that vampy undergrad Lili (Anna Paquin) workshops her dire erotica. It's quite another to ask your kid afterward, "Did you get that she was talking about her cunt?"

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