Little Big Men

Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical Adventureland and Noah Baumbach’s hopefully not autobiographical at all Greenberg show just how different two com-drams with generational overtones can be from each other, with Adventureland never tasting sour even at its sourest and Greenberg never coming close to real sweetness even though it strives—desperately at times—for a sophisticated sweet-and-sour tone. Adventureland is actually a period piece: it’s set in the summer of ’87, sometime around the point that Ronald Reagan consigned us all to Hell for years to come, but its biggest social statement may have been unintended: it captures in an unmistakable way the seismic shift among America’s youth in the last few decades, in which our slacker impulses have grown ever more prolonged with every passing generation. I had to pinch myself to remember that Jesse Eisenberg was supposed to be freshly graduated from college, rather than merely high school, because he and his circle of friends—summer workers at a rinky-dink amusement park in Pittsburgh—are so unfocused and callow they all seem to have one foot perpetually trapped in puberty.

In The Graduate Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock spent his first summer after college screwing the middle-aged wife of his father’s law partner and hating himself for it; Eisenberg’s James Brennan, by contrast, spends his summer working a shitty job, partying, and trying to make out—in other words, living the life of a high-school sophomore. (In the movie’s biggest stretch we’re asked to believe this funny, handsome kid is still a virgin, a situation that’s not rectified until the final fadeout.) Where Ben Braddock was dour and put off by everything, James is a puppy dog eager to engage with the world. A running gag in Mottola’s movie involves the kid who every so often suckerpunches James right in the balls—a type of humor wholly alien to The Graduate. There are other telling differences here, but my point is that Ben seemed, if not a fully grown man in the sense of, say, Don Draper, he and his peers at least were standing at the gates of adulthood, while James and his geeks-and-freaks circle of friends don’t seem any older than the kids in American Graffiti or The Breakfast Club—they’re that naïve, that parochial, the crises they face that primitive—even though they’re supposed to be four crucial years older than their movie cousins. If that much regression is possible in the 40 years since The Graduate came out, it’ll be interesting, to say the least, to see where we stand, say, 80 years from now.

And yet I rather liked Adventureland, partly because it’s so unpretentious. It’s like an elaboration of that segment in Rushmore where Jason Schwartzman, having made enemies of all the people who matter most to him, can only let his feelings percolate inside him until he’s ready to make amends; James Brennan has less on the line but he, too, is in limbo, and here the sense of hanging in a void fills out an entire movie. (Rushmore’s humor perversely relied on the fact that Max Fischer was more complicated than any of the adults around him, and that the solemnity of purpose he’d invested himself with was the exact quality so conspicuously missing from Bill Murray’s character.) Adventureland often becomes an incredibly subjective film, with whole sequences staged to communicate how even the little events in James’ life—the way an attractive girl across the way is dancing, for instance—look to him. Mottola bluntly acknowledges both the sex and drug use in his young people’s lives without any bet-hedging, yeah-but bullshit, and he shows the same generosity to his adult characters. After James creates a scene by getting drunk with the family car, his mother demands to know where the liquor came from. We know the bottle belongs to his dad, a closet boozer, and the father’s gaze of chastened appreciation when James doesn’t rat him out feels even better when they don’t spill out their thoughts to each other afterward.

I keep waiting for parts of Greenberg to come back and haunt me, the way so many bits from Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding did in the days right after I saw them, but beyond the brief little shot of Greta Gerwig dancing around to “Uncle Albert”—nada. Greenberg, meaning the actual character played by Ben Stiller, is the frostiest creation Baumbach has given us yet, and that’s fine—I’d rather a character be rendered too coldly than without enough distance—but he’s also been saddled with two things new to Baumbach heroes, a psychiatric history and a backstory, and I didn’t like either one of them. It’s a given, for me at least, that neurotics are inherently interesting people, which is why I like Noah Baumbach movies in the first place, but modern anxieties that act as our personal foils and actual mental illness are two separate things, in movies if not in medical science, and I had a hard time enjoying the piquancy of Greenberg’s relationship with Mahler the German shepherd because I couldn’t stop wondering what his psychiatrist back in New York thought about his recently hospitalized patient traveling all the way to L.A. to housesit for his abusive shit-heel of a brother.

Baumbach (and/or Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has a story credit) also filled in Greenberg’s past with a feeble little story about the time he sabotaged his old band’s shot at a record contract by making difficult artistic demands on the label. His late-coming apology to his ex-bandmate buddy, more antagonized than actually repentant, is heartbreaking when it comes (I didn’t know Stiller had it in him), but the story itself is a goose, one of those deadweight synthetic studs that gives a piece structure but carries too much explanatory weight; we’re asked to believe that Greenberg’s actions not only destroyed the band but wrecked his friend’s best chance at happiness, which is an idea I can only call bullshit on. In any case it’s less the substance of the story I object to than its presence in any form; we’re given next to no information about the monsters Jeff Daniels and Nicole Kidman played in Baumbach’s earlier movies, yet they’re infinitely more convincing than any part of that damn band subplot. Even if we’re intended to see Greenberg and his pal as self-willed losers, it’s the kind of neat-to-a-fault conceit that Baumbach usually steers well clear of, and it still brings us back to a pair of men who are less flawed than they are simply un-grown up. If Ben Braddock works as a point of comparison for the twenty-something James Brennan, I hate to think who could do the same for the forty-something Roger Greenberg.

Greenberg feels like the first time Baumbach decided to arm-wrestle a happy ending out of his material, even though he stops on one of his familiarly “ambiguous”, life-goes-on notes. Like Alexander Payne’s Sideways and—for that matter—Adventureland, Greenberg ends with its hero in a state of tenuous hope, and in all three cases it’s due to their protagonists finding a woman who’s poised to (choose one or all three) right their lives/fill the void inside them/reunite them with humanity. If that isn’t a conventional outcome, what is? These carefully mussed monuments to uncertainty may work as a metaphor for the hopes we harbor of finding sustained happiness in our lives, but for such hothouse flowers to ever stand a chance, they need to be both honest and spare; what makes rare orchids rare, after all, is their rareness. We can’t all be the Dardenne brothers, people.

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