Greenberg

Sometimes just a scant few minutes of a movie can build a permanent home in your memory. Scenic Routes is a feature devoted to exploring cinema’s most remarkable individual sequences: the sublime, the exasperating, the iconic, the ineffable.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge did the world a huge favor when he coined the term “suspension of disbelief.” (And sure, also when he wrote many great works of literature.) Presumably he meant “suspend” as in “temporarily prevent or inhibit”—you put your skepticism on hold for a while. But it seems apropos that “suspend” can also refer to an object hanging in the air, like the fabled sword of Damocles. Not just our disbelief, but our entire fragile connection to a movie can come crashing down at a moment’s notice, never to be fully re-established. Ludicrous as it may sound, I sometimes feel intensely anxious during films that seem like potential masterpieces, to the point of almost wanting to flee the theater or stop the DVD. After all, my adrenal cortex argues, if I never see the rest of it, it can never disappoint me. There’s no chance of some horribly misjudged moment inadvertently snapping the cord attached to the basket in which I’ve deposited my natural inclination to call “Bullshit!” when faced with a made-up story.

One of the most dramatic and alienating ruptures in recent years happened for me about halfway through Greenberg, Noah Baumbach’s prickly comedy about the relationship between a middle-aged man (Ben Stiller) and the sunny but painfully insecure young woman (Greta Gerwig) taking care of Stiller’s brother’s dog. At no point during the film did I experience any masterpiece-anxiety, but I’m generally a fan of Baumbach’s work, and was responding favorably to this one, even though its title character skirts closer to outright caricature than usual for him. Then came a scene that just threw me out of the movie, permanently. It’s actually two scenes, technically—a longer one between Stiller and Gerwig, followed by a brief interaction between Gerwig and her best friend. I’m including the latter, even though it breaks my established Aristotelian-unity rule for this column, because it’s necessary to contextualize exactly why the damage turned out to be completely irreparable. If you didn’t/don’t have the reaction I’ll describe below, I’m really eager to hear why not.

First, a disclaimer. I have no problem whatsoever with unlikeable characters. (Let’s just call them “very deeply flawed.”) Buffalo ’66, for example, which I recently tackled in this column, features an even bigger asshole than Stiller’s Greenberg, and an even more troublingly passive young woman. But that film clearly inhabits a sort of fantasy world, made evident throughout by Gallo’s aggressively stylized direction. Greenberg, on the other hand, seems to take place in the real world, and Gerwig in particular comes across as a believably mixed-up, complex human being, not some kewpie-doll dream girl. Her story about the time she and her friend posed as slutty, desperate bimbos is remarkably self-aware. She’s perhaps not articulate enough to quote Nietzsche on the nature of the abyss or anything, but her anecdote is to Stiller’s noxious boast about his ironic use of “man” as Of Mice And Men is to an “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt.

Baumbach knows that, obviously. That isn’t the problem. Certainly we’re expected to recoil from Stiller’s behavior throughout this scene, especially from the point where he stands up and complains that Gerwig never has anything good to drink. That strikes me as a credible response to his clear discomfort with hearing Gerwig describe flashing a bunch of drunken frat guys. But what follows is just insane. At a moment when she’s clearly feeling vulnerable, he tells her it’s the stupidest story he’s ever heard, already pushing the envelope of permissible obnoxiousness close to the limit. Stiller’s abrupt departure (without a word save for a patently contemptuous “bye,”) plays almost as shocking and unforgivable to me as if he’d hauled off and punched her. (As a reaction to what she just said, it makes about as much sense.)

People are sometimes awful to each other, but never in my life has anyone just got up and left my company without even engaging in an argument first. I’ve been hung up on occasionally, but even those hang-ups were precipitated by a heated exchange of some kind, rather than being sudden interruptions of a conversation that seemed to be going fine.

But the moment when my disbelief truly came crashing down on my head, forcibly ejecting me from any further engagement with the story, was when the subsequent hiking scene found Gerwig defending Stiller. At that point, I realized I was watching a romance between a douchebag and a doormat, and the film’s overall tone seemed way too lighthearted to make that concept bearable. To his credit, Baumbach provides a voice for my objections onscreen—Gerwig’s friend not only insists that Stiller’s behavior is unacceptable, but openly threatens to end the friendship if Gerwig doesn’t do the sensible thing and stay far away from this creep. (If you haven’t seen the film, she “drives him places” because he’s from New York and has no driver’s license.)

For whatever reason, though, that failed to mollify me. I can believe and accept it when Gerwig rationalizes an explanation and reluctantly decides to give the guy another chance. But when she doesn’t first work through being appalled and angry, it makes her seem neurologically damaged, strictly for the sake of narrative convenience. I watched the rest of the movie, but I no longer gave a damn. (For the record, where their relationship ends up didn’t help a bit.)

What makes this doubly frustrating is that the scene is so acutely perceptive prior to Stiller’s abrupt exit. Baumbach captures the self-conscious nature of casual conversations between people who’ve just begun dating—I love the way Gerwig says “You don’t feel the bullshit pressure to be successful,” then quickly realizes how that might be misinterpreted, and clarifies. I love even more that Stiller then misinterprets her anyway. And her deliberately pathetic “wink wink” when she invites him to spend the night is heartbreaking. It’s a beautifully clumsy pas de deux, and I don’t understand why Baumbach chose to sabotage all that hard work by having Stiller do something so patently hateful that it would effectively kill almost any real-world romance, or even platonic friendship.

But is that just me? Would you guys put up with that shit? (Before someone brings up Margot At The Wedding, which I like, bear in mind that those other characters are Margot’s family. They have to tolerate her. Totally different context.) In all candor, I’m writing this particular column primarily because I’m curious to see the comments it inspires. If this scene doesn’t strike you as a dealbreaker, why not? And have other films done something that instantly severed the cord connecting you to the screen? Help me out here, so that I’m not forced to write a cranky, Greenberg-esque letter to Baumbach himself.