Monday, March 29, 2010

Imperfectly Stiller

Movies like Greenberg should be portraying men more realistically

Cinematically speaking, I'd follow Ben Stiller pretty much anywhere -- and in the last decade and a half, I pretty much have, because Stiller has covered a lot of ground. Though I'm aware of his early career on stage and television, he first caught my attention with his directorial debut, Reality Bites, in 1994, in which he also played the professionally successful, but dweebish suitor for Winona Ryder, who instead chose the irritatingly self-important slacker played (typecast?) by Ethan Hawke. In the years since, I've savored Stiller in films like Flirting with Disaster (1996), There's Something about Mary (1998, which I regard as one of the great comedies of all time), Zoolander (which he also directed in 2001), and Tropic Thunder (2008), a mock Vietnam epic he starred in and helmed, whose take on racial minstrelsy, hilariously embodied by Robert Downey, will find its way into my pop culture course this fall.

Stiller is the main reason, probably the decisive reason, I went to see Noah Baumbach's recently opened Greenberg, in which Stiller plays the title role, a 40 year-old grade-A narcissist who reluctantly succumbs to the charms of a 25-year old named Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig in what will surely be a breakthrough role). I've avoided Baumbach's movies because they tend to feature unpleasant protagonists, like Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale (2005). Not that you can't make a great movie with an unattractive protagonist. But there's got to be a payoff, which can take any number of forms, among them redemption of some kind for that character, a new insight about such people, an avenue of sympathy for their struggle, or a useful lesson for those around them. I never had the confidence that I would get this from Baumbach's movies, and so was unwilling to part with the time and money to commit to one. But I've been curious about them, and this time, Stiller tipped the balance.

But I didn't like the movie. Stiller was good, as always, and I appreciate both the depth and breadth of his range. Beyond the lack of a payoff, though, was a more specific grievance: I couldn't  suspend the necessary disbelief to accept the relationship between his and Gerwig's characters -- or, more accurately, what was in it for her. Again: I can readily believe there's a good new movie to be made about a March-September romance. Or about a gigantically passive-aggressive man's achievement of emotional intimacy. Or even about a young woman's floundering in a relationship with a man who is probably no good for her (low self-esteem is clearly something that bedevils a number of characters in this movie, not all of them female). But in that case, it should be called Florence, not Greenberg. We simply don't get enough of that angle in this movie. Instead, what we get is a man who mooches rides, manipulates people into asking questions he wants answered, or simply throws temper tantrums when he feels vulnerable. As such, Greenberg is part of a dispiriting trend, one discernible in movies like Judd Apatow's Knocked Up (2007) or the new, and even more crass She's Out of My League (2010), in we're asked to accept women accepting far less than they should. There's too much sexism in contemporary cinema.

Don't get me wrong: 21st century men, particularly working class men, have plenty of problems tied to their gender. They're falling behind in their educations, their presence in the work force, and their wages, which have been receding for decades. (Maybe the editors of Newsweek could do a cover story on that to complement the one they published on women's inequality last week). But we've got to be a little more honest, even in our fantasies, about where we stand. And our artists need to lead the way. What I'd really like to see at some point is a Ben Stiller movie with the figurative title of Knocked Down.