Secret Lives

‘GREENBERG’ & ‘CITY ISLAND’

Recently I checked in again with two directors whose films earned praise in the past. Noah Baumbach made a name for himself with The Squid and the Whale, a pithy study in domestic pathology that traced a family’s miseries to the black hole of narcissism and rage inhabited by the father, a failed writer. Baumbach’s new movie, Greenberg, explores similar terrain, charting the travails of a forty-year-old carpenter and ex–rock musician, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), who returns to his L.A. stomping grounds to housesit for his wealthy, vacationing brother and family.

Greenberg has suffered a recent breakdown, and he exudes the nervous spaciness of the walking wounded. “I’ve been trying to do nothing,” he tells old friends who ask what he’s been up to. Still resented by his former bandmates for having ruined their chance at a record contract fifteen years earlier (he didn’t want to deal with the big record companies and their BS, he insists), Greenberg is trying to figure out how his life went off the rails. Arrogant, but afflicted by paralyzing insecurities, he sits in his brother’s house, writing crackpot letters of complaint to various companies whose products and services have pricked his majestic annoyance.

In the background lurk the sort of family issues that were up-front in Squid—a passing jab from Greenberg’s hostile brother, for instance, implies some kind of blame for their mother’s death. But this time Baumbach does not...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.