I often get into discussions with fellow writers over whether central characters of movies have to be likeable or not. To me it’s a ridiculous argument since there are tons of movies with not just unpleasant leads, but wholly repulsive ones. But I know someone who doesn’t want to see a movie with a central character he wouldn’t want to have dinner with. I never understood this, since for me, one of the great things about art is that I’m able interact with people I would never want to meet in real life or go to places, or become involved in situations, that I would never, ever want to outside the safe confines of the movie theater. But not everyone agrees. And two films opened recently with lead characters whom I wouldn’t, and I don’t think the someone I mentioned above would, want to break bread with anytime soon.
Greenberg is the new film by the talented writer/director Noah Baumbach. Ben Stiller, who looks a tad emaciated and has a peculiar way of applying Chapstick to his lips, plays the title role, a dour, middle aged guy who has recently tried to commit suicide and slightly more recently just gotten out of the hospital. This is perhaps one of Ben Stiller’s finest performances; but then, I always much prefer him when he’s playing a real person rather than a cartoon (like Jim Carrey—Will Farrell, I can go either way on). Greenberg comes to L.A. to housesit his brother’s spacious Hollywood home and build a dog house while his brother and family are in Viet Nam on vacation/business. This gives Greenberg time to reconnect with old friends, none of whom want to reconnect with him, except for Ivan Shrank (Rhys Ifans), a sad, doe eyed and attractively scruffy Britain relocated to L.A. who is having marital problems. Greenberg, Ivan and others were all in a band at one time until Greenberg blew a record deal and dropped out. But that’s only one of the reasons his friends have no interest in him. Greenberg is also a self-absorbed narcissist who is prone to fits of anger. He has a sad affair of sorts with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence, played by an even sadder looking Greta Gerwig, a wilting flower if there ever was one. Florence is probably the weakest role in the movie, almost seeming more a device to reveal certain aspects of Greenberg’s personality that a real person in her own right. The character is never quite believable and her feelings for Greenberg grow at such an unnatural rate, one doesn’t know what to make of her, except to suspect a mental illness as the cause of her inability to control her feelings. Greenberg keeps treating her abominably, but there she is, bouncing back like one of those clown balloons kids sock. And she doesn’t just keep bouncing back, she comes to some insane conclusion that she and Greenberg have actually started a relationship and that he has feelings for her (she has battered woman’s syndrome without the battery). Is Florence Greenberg’s only hope for a normal relationship or are these two people so hopeless that if they end up together it will only be because, who else would have them? Baumbach, as well as Jennifer Jason Leigh (who is credited with co-creation of the story), have an ending that wants to have it both ways or maybe they just didn’t know how to do the fade out thing. But now that I’ve probably made a bit too much out of all that, it must be said that Baumbach is one of our finest rising screenwriters. The dialog here is sharp and refreshingly rhythmic, full of welcome wit. Like Woody Allen, he’s a better writer than director, but like Allen he more than gets the job done. Greenburg is about as unlikeable an asshole as you can find, someone who you would never want to spend much time, let alone have dinner, with. But what’s more important is that he is fascinating. I don’t care how much I like a character on screen as long as I don’t find him boring, and Greenberg is not boring. Maybe this is because ultimately he has no illusions about himself. He knows he’s broken and he knows that he’s broken other people. He may be self absorbed, but he’s also fully self aware about it, understanding that he has his own part to play in his own self destruction. Greenberg is a moving character study of someone who is disconnected from the world and knows it, but also knows there is little he can do about it.
Harmony and Me also has an unlikeable lead in its title character. But there’s a difference here. Halfway through the movie, one of the characters, the ex-girlfriend of Harmony (well enough played by Justin Rice—that is, Rice plays Harmony, not the girlfriend; she’s played, also well enough, by Kristen Tucker), tells him why she broke up with him. “You know (and I’m heavily paraphrasing here) how you’re at a movie and you realize about half way through that the central character’s not very interesting?” This is the sort of scene a writer inserts in a film (screenplay here by director Bob Byington) because he knows that that this will be a criticism of the film and by calling attention to it first, he hopes to sabotage the audience’s reaction to it. It often works, but here it doesn’t. Harmony remains sadly uninteresting and the author’s calling attention to it doesn’t help; it actually just reinforces what the audience has been feeling. The odd thing is that at this point, Harmony does become a bit more interesting, mainly because he tries to kill himself by eating chocolate and ends up in a coma, thereby taking him out of the picture for a significant amount of time and the emphasis of the movie falls on his friends and relatives who are far more less boring (including Kevin Corrigan, whose shaggy dog way of speaking is an always welcome addition to a film). Like Greenberg, Harmony treats his friends very badly, so badly that it’s hard to believe they would all gather around his coma ridden bed to support him (in Greenberg, the only interest his old friends show him is the minimal amount required by social contract). But very unlike Greenberg, Harmony just isn’t very interesting, or at least as interesting as he seems to think he is. He comes out of his coma with no new insight into himself or his situation. His ex comes to visit him, but he pretends to have amnesia and not remember who she is. It’s a cruel thing to do. If it’s supposed to symbolize his ability to finally let go of this relationship, it doesn’t; it just symbolizes that he’s still the same old asshole he always was. Harmony has characteristics of many of the characters in what is termed “mumble core” films, people who are highly educated, but have no use for their education or don’t know what to do with it; people who think they are self aware when they really aren’t; and think they are interesting because of it, when they aren’t. The most interesting aspect of the film is the structure; the story is revealed in a series of vignettes in which Harmony hops from friend to relative to friend to relative, as well as location to location, often with no real set up and logic. But Byington is very skilled at making this sort of off kilter approach to storytelling work and make sense. It also ends with some funny, non sequitorial scenes in which Harmony becomes a parking meter attendant. All the evidence shows that Byington has an interesting vision and that he has an approach to movie making that could serve him in good stead and I do want to see more by him. But in the end, Harmony is a movie being touted by critics as a film that for some unbelievable and surprising reason can’t find a distributor. I don’t find it unbelievable and wasn’t the least surprised.