We all have a friend like Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), or maybe we went through a Greenberg stage at some point in our lives (most likely in high school). He’s the guy so desperate to be understood that he spends all of his time attempting to prove what he stands for (pursuits which he believes to be noble), but only proves his unwavering stubbornness and becomes defined by others as “the guy who’s always trying to define himself.” In his pursuit, he alienates himself from friends and strangers alike and ends up seeing the world through a lonely and jaded lens. That is, hopefully (and Greenberg gives us hope), until some point in his adult life, when he decides that not having to prove himself to everyone doesn’t mean he has no worth and that it’s essential to allow the worldviews of others into his protective sphere because to not do so would only mean more loneliness and alienation in the future.
Some might call Greenberg’s journey one of delayed maturity, but I think maturity’s a dated term: let’s call Greenberg’s journey a delayed understanding of social subtlety. We can’t allow ourselves to use the blanket label “insensitive” to describe some of Greenberg’s moments. Director Noah Baumbach has explored the insensitive snob, played by Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale (2005) as a womanizing college English professor who uses his knowledge with chess-like scrupulousness rather than as a source of soulful enlightenment. Make no mistake: Greenberg does not want to be lonely or rude. It just takes him a long time to figure out that a person has worth despite not understanding the delicate nature of creating the perfect mix-tape for a certain occasion.
In the case of this film Florence (Greta Gerwig), a more hippy-than-hipster twenty-something who nannies for Greenberg’s brother, plays the perfect foil to Greenberg. She is equally confused with social dynamics and finds herself sleeping with any cute guy who shows her some attention, despite her seeming to know the cost of her dastardly behavior.
Take, for example, the scene in which both Greenberg and Florence exhibit their equally unhealthy approaches to intimacy: Greenberg goes to Florence’s studio apartment (the plan is that they’ll go to a bar from there) and proceeds (with the assumption that Florence wants to sleep with him) to hastily engage in sex. Florence, equally haphazardly, consents to a very sloppy encounter before asking Greenberg if they can take it slowly because she’s been on bit of a three-man sex bender and doesn’t quite want to slide down that slippery slope any longer, to which Greenberg becomes defensive because he finds out he would actually be the third man in that three-man sex bender and now that he’s been rejected—well, let’s say he spews blood from his eyes like a horned lizard when it feels threatened.
In just a two minute scene, Stiller goes from attack mode to flight: when he notices a cold-sore on Florence’s mouth, he assumes it to be an STD from her almost-three-man bender and goes to the bathroom to check on his mouth. Before leaving the bathroom, as a sensitive gesture, he flushes the toilet to let Florence know he was not scoping for herpes on his face and in actuality was taking a whiz. What’s clear is that they’re both yearning for some warmth and understanding; they are both sensitive and self-critical and yet entirely unable to communicate their needs or even be self-aware of them.
Through a series of similar mishaps, Florence’s open-book vulnerability allows Greenberg to experience a molting of his own shell, as evidenced through slight (but arduous for him) favors Greenberg does for Florence, even though it’s no quick process and does not guarantee Greenberg will continue with his growth in the future.
The film Greenberg is just one step in Greenberg’s life, which culminates with Greenberg’s epiphany that not all pursuits in life need not be noble or self-serving. Sometimes it’s okay if something just feels right. For anyone who knows a Greenberg (or a Florence, for that matter), Baumbach’s portrait is an absolutely essential.