I first became interested in the film when Videogum included it in its Search for the Worst Film of All Time Feature. As a film masochist, I enjoy the schadenfreude of watching bad film, but I remained fascinated rather than disgusted. Greenberg is also a perfect example of a genre that I have coined “rich white people with problems.”
In the quest for the privileged to understand their role, and perhaps relieve some guilt, the idea of “first world problems” as a comedic concept started infusing memes and internet tomfoolery. It’s a way for the privileged to both laugh at themselves and to perhaps relieve some guilt. “White Wines” captured the ignorant statements made on social media (“I asked for a black iphone and my parents got me a white one!”) while a popular meme showed a white woman in tears with a brief macro of something that she may be overreacting to [“I can’t DVR Game of Thrones because I am already DVRing Boardwalk Empire”; These brief memes became a digestible, if not superficial way to look at privilege.
Privilege, and subsequently, whiteness, has become the new hot topic, especially in the many thinkpieces about Lena Dunham’s show Girls, which revolves around a privileged, white, young woman interacting with her privileged, white friends, all dealing with what would be considered “first world problems”. Girls was criticized for being frivolous and lacking diversity. Arguably, Girls was not exactly the only show to exhibit this: I mean, isn’t this what 99% of television shows are? Somehow Lena Dunham became the scapegoat for this. To her defense, she is a twenty-four year old privileged white woman, and is writing what she knows. Should we expect writers to create worlds and characters we know nothing about? It seems that any issue or problem was considered “first world”, there was a stigma attached to it, as if it that perspective was automatically problematic and not worthy of any artistic expression. The reality is, a problem is a problem if someone feels it is. We feel what we feel, and anyone’s problem could always be put into perspective; there is always someone less fortunate than us. There’s still room in film and other media to explore this. Of course, the problem arises when this is the only type of perspective in mainstream arts, but each work of art should be considered on its own merits.
Hence, we come to a loose association of films that I have come to consider “rich white people problems.” Often I find the characters that populate this genre as insufferable, selfish, and privileged, but it doesn’t make the characters any less interesting, and I still may find their stories interesting. The pioneers of this made up, subjective genre include Whit Stillman, and Noah Baumbach, whose films include Kicking and Screaming, Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Frances Ha, and most notably here, Greenberg. Yes, his films are about typically white, well-off people and the problems they encounter. This does not make his films useless, they are about characters that the viewer is free to find compelling or not. Roger Greenberg, the protagonist of is most definitely not going to be everyone’s favorite.
Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller. Greenberg may or may not have suffered some sort of mental breakdown, and is now “just trying to do nothing.” As in, not trying to decide on a career, not trying to meet someone, not trying to be anything. Just doing nothing. Which, in my world at which I am conditioned to find my career, find myself, make a name for myself, is utterly terrifying. To try to do and be nothing and admit it? This is something I actively avoid, almost to a fault. At the same time, it can be seen as ultimately selfish and egotistical, in that Greenberg is making no attempts to contribute to society, better himself as a person. He’s not actively looking for work, who does he expect to support him? Well, for now, he has his friends’ house to crash at, where he meet Florence, (Greta Gerwig), the family’s personal assistant. Florence is similar to Greenberg in that’s she’s fairly aimless, but perhaps not for the same reason. She’s in her early twenties and a recent transplant to Los Angeles, trying to navigate the social scene with vague career ambitions. She and Greenberg start pretty much the least-dramatic relationship, hanging out more with convenience. He’s indifferent to her, and she seems unwilling or too naïve or unsure to call him out on it. There is something comforting about their courtship- it’s not a whirlwind romance with unrealistic depiction, it’s mundane and perhaps one of the relationships people have before the great love affairs we usually see in the movies.
The most awkward scene between Greenberg and Florence occurs when he arrives at her humble apartment to pick her up for their first official date. We are led to believe that she doesn’t yet know what to think of him, and that she is at a place where she will go out with someone because they ask. Greenberg, of course, shows no intense emotion and of course is still standoffish. Florence and Greenberg awkwardly fall on the bed and Greenberg goes down on Florence. “I’m wearing a really weird bra. It doesn’t fasten” she announces. After she unceremoniously climaxes, there’s an awkward moment where she pulls of up her shirt and then they decide to leave for their date. It’s awkward because it’s so mechanical, and so intimate for people that are not even sure how to act around each other. You could call it a misplaced scene, but you also can consider it something that builds the weird tension in the film. And I love nothing more than creating an awkward, jarring moment, especially in a film with such low stakes.
Greenberg is still an interesting character- he’s still unbalanced and obviously trying to reach for something he can’t get. The more intriguing relationship is with his longtime friend Ivan played byRhys Ifans, who both try to recreate their friendships of the past but both knowing that they both have changed too much to have the same relationship. Ivan is the only one who truly cares for him but Greenberg can’t or won’t acknowledge it. Ivan has an interesting backstory, but here only serves to show how reclusive, bitter and unbalanced Greenberg has become since he was younger. In yet another gloriously uncomfortable scene, Greenberg does try to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend from his past, but gets abruptly rejected.
Many of the main criticisms of the film point to the fact that Greenberg treats Florence like shit, which is true. I don’t enjoy watching that dymanic per se, but here it is necessary to build both their characters. Greenberg has problems relating to people, and Florence has a problem standing up to people. Other than that, the film depicts fairly normal activities. Greenberg and Greta have pretty mundane dates, Greenberg has awkward interactions at a party due to intense social ineptitude and anxiety. The family dog becomes sick. Somehow, the mundane becomes fascinating. As much as we delude ourselves into thinking we want films for fantasy fulfillment, sometimes seeing a reflection of the everyday is so comforting and ultimately fascinating.
I’m not missing the fact that the film is good because good talent is attached. Ben Stiller is a surprisingly skilled dramatic actor and Greta Gerwig isn’t the new indie it girls for nothing- she’s easy on the eyes but not impossibly attractive, her hesitancy is the result of skilled acting, not a hesitancy of her as an actor. Noah Baumback ain’t too shabby with his dialogue either. However, I can also see why people may find this film pointless- narrative plot is not paramount.
For the reasons that I have defended the “white people problems” films and for the reasons I like Greenberg, there’s no reason I shouldn’t also like the recent indie release Nobody Walks which my sentient Netflix account thought I would like. I can’t really blame it for suggesting it. [The film was also co-written by Lena Dunham, also, not surprising.] Netflix, you were wrong: found this film. excruciating. There’s not liking a film, and there’s actively disliking a film so much you have to devote an analysis of why this film bothers you analysis. Nobody Walks also employs actors and scenarios that are so tantamount to stereotypes of rich, white hipsters, that it practically feels like a parody of an indie film.
Olivia Thirby plays the quirjy, pixe-cut adorned Martine who is making an experimental film about nature sounds. Because, if course she is. Peter (John Krasinski, who I can never see as anyone but Jim Halpert) and Julie are a happily married, well off couple living in the Los Angeles hills. Julie is played by Rosemary DeWitt, who is wonderful, but seems to specialize in quirky indies (see Rachel Getting Married, another entry in this genre). I must stop here to express my annoyance about filmmakers who create characters who work in the film business. Its such a circle jerk of filmmaking.
Martine is invited to work with Peter, who is a sound technician. They listen to various sounds and create some very unconvincing sexual tension. Martine’s character is naive and selfish for choosing to pursue the affair, but that could be a testament to her age, but still doesn’t help in the sympathy department. Peter, who is not all that developed of a character to begin with, turns possessive and borderline abusive once the affair starts, and Julie just fumbles through the role of jilted wife.
Affairs and betrayal of spouses is often in movies because it creates intrigue and deception- all good things to tell in a movie. However, one needs to care about the characters and the stakes involved. In Nobody Walks I literally do not give a shit about what these characters do. In fact,Peter is kind of an asshole, so the fact that Julie may leave him is a good thing. Martine doesn’t learn any sort of lesson and will likely continue to give herself sexually to someone because it boosts her self-esteem. Admittedly, the characters privilege did come into mind for me. “Some people have real problems,” I thought, contradicting my general feeling that all people’s problems can be intriguing. But somehow these characters didn’t feel rounded or even sympathetic. I now see how it is easy to validate some boring attributes of a person to whiteness/privilege. Maybe because the stakes were not even raised.
You may be thinking I am contradicting of what I said about Greenberg- the characters are privileged, there are no real stakes in the film, so why did I hate Nobody Walks so much? It comes down to the simple tenants of storytelling: SHOW DON’T TELL. Show my why I should care about the characters, don’t assume that I will. Sure, adultery is pretty shitty, but even shittier to characters that have some tangible depth. Peter is a sound technician and Martine is an experimental filmmaker. Obviously, that only applies. .00001% of the population (probably less), so there’s needs to be some other semblance of humanity in these people that we can grasp.
I’ve clearly established that Nobody Walks is bland, boring, and impossible to relate to. What is most puzzling is literally how this movie was made. Why did this writer director feel that this was a story that needed to be told. This was not a powerful director working for a major studio, this is an indie fillm maker who had to actively campaign for this film to be made, not to mention get the investment to pay the well-known actors. Unless these actors chose the role to get some indie cred? This baffles me. It’s not surprising that big Hollywood films are made despite being of poor quality, but this was someone’s labor of love. Too bad it is unwatchable.
At the time of this writing, I have not yet seen Frances Ha, but am excited to do so. Greta Gerwig directed by Noah Baumbach is about as good as you can get.