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

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?

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.

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?”

A semiautobiographical portrait of a splintering Brooklyn family, The Squid and the Whale is the Baumbach film in which the perils of over-identification are most poignant. Though young Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is literally sprinting away from his father’s influences by the finale, for most of the film he idealizes Bernard: lapping up his line on the divorce (all Mom’s fault), letting him tag along on dates, and internalizing his literary tastes so credulously that he doesn’t feel compelled to read the books in question. (Walt describes The Metamorphosis to a classmate as “Kafka-esque.”) Roger Greenberg has a mentoring streak, too: In his first encounter with Florence, he plays Albert Hammond’s ‘70s soft-rock hit “It Never Rains in Southern California” and explains, “You have to see past the kitsch.” (One can picture Walt Berkman testing that line on a girl in a dorm room some sultry night.) Even the mix CD Roger burns for Florence smacks of pedantry—a way to make up her mind, so that talking to Florence feels like talking to himself.

Baumbach’s characters (the men especially) feel safest when they’re putting thoughts and experience between quotation marks; the burden is on others to hop onto their ironic wavelength, to “get it.” In Margot at the Wedding, Margot’s future brother-in-law Malcolm (Jack Black) grows a cheesy mustache that’s “supposed to be funny”; in Greenberg, Roger clarifies that he and Ivan address each other as “Man” because “that’s what other people say.” Squid’s Bernard can turn a medical crisis into a movie reference: As he’s loaded onto an ambulance after a heart scare, he quotes the famously ambiguous last scene from Godard’s Breathless, then explicates the citation to his puzzled audience.

A Baumbach protagonist wears his pretensions like armor, but the pose of detachment is also the stance of the fiction writer or critic (incidentally, Baumbach is the son of both), who benefits from a ruthless facility for treating events and people as potential content to be appropriated or evaluated. Kicking and Screaming and Margot at the Wedding both feature skirmishes over rights to real-life material (“We’ll see who gets it first,” Grover tells his girlfriend sternly), but the instinct extends past the page. In The Squid and the Whale, Walt presses pause on a makeout session with his endearingly Florence-like girlfriend, Sophie (Halley Feiffer), to comment that she has too many freckles on her face. In Margot at the Wedding, Margot scrutinizes her son Claude (Zane Pais) like a casting agent, cringing at his new sunglasses (“They make your face look too wide”) and lamenting the loss of his “more graceful” pre-pubescent body. (One shudders to think of Margot with a daughter.) The heart sinks, not least because Baumbach grasps that such offhand cruelty is born of sad isolation. When everyone around you is just a canvas for your own insecurities and pathologies, can you be any lonelier?

There’s another problem with treating the people in your life as short-story fodder or as characters in the movie unspooling in your mind: They might start thinking for themselves and reciting lines you didn’t write for them. When Greenberg’s Florence says that she likes spending time with Roger, his response is apoplectic: “You don’t like it!” he screams. It’s an absurd outburst, but one that a narcissist consumed with self-loathing feels in his blood and bones. He can’t imagine anyone not thinking what he’s thinking—and haven’t so many of us been there, at least once or twice in our lives? Baumbach’s malcontents may drive us crazy, but they always retain a measure of sympathy and humanity because they are extreme manifestations of a universal dilemma: the impossibility of escaping one’s own head.

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