A Man Called Panic

Why we love to watch Ben Stiller suffer (Greenberg). And why we don't enjoy it so much with Julianne Moore (Chloe).

You hardly ever hear the word “neurotic” any more, particularly in reference to mainstream entertainment. Once upon a time, notably in the Sixties and Seventies, entire strata of movies, TV, novels, advertising, and pop songs — real, genuine popular entertainment products — were based on the neurotic premise. Protagonists were almost required by law to be moody, depressed, or at least anxious about something.

Not any more, of course. Styles change, even if people basically remain the same. It’s not cool to be antsy, out of place, or maladjusted any more. We’ve got better drugs these days, for one thing. And there’s the whole connectivity yadda-yadda, social networking sites and whatnot. It’s almost as if a poor schnook, the sort of guy who would be scraping along the pavement looking for a friend, no longer has a right to complain about anything.

That’s what Roger Greenberg, eponymous hero of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, is getting at when he blurts out, in the midst of a cocaine-alcohol-Vicodin-fueled rant to a party full of twentysomethings in the last quarter of the film, that their generation is just so irritatingly blithe. He’s playing the old “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you don’t understand the situation” riff. It’s one of the many moments in Baumbach’s often-hilarious screenplay when we’re unsure whether to laugh out loud or to feel embarrassed for the poor guy.

Writer-director Baumbach has that self-pitying riff nailed, and so does Roger (Ben Stiller), Greenberg‘s 41-year-old loner with a boner, aka A Man Called Panic, the guy who can’t even be happy house-sitting a mansion in Beverly Hills. Check that — it’s a mansion in Beverly Hills with a personal assistant attached.

Roger, a semi-employed carpenter who lives in Brooklyn, returns to his hometown of Los Angeles to house-sit for his successful brother Phillip (Chris Messina) while Phillip and his family are on a business-and-pleasure trip to Vietnam. All Roger has to do is to maybe build a doghouse for Mahler, the family pet, and keep an amiable eye on the neighbors who are allowed to use the pool. Anything else Roger needs can be handled by Florence (Greta Gerwig), the Greenberg family’s girl Friday. Florence is tall, blond, and mellow to a fault — in classic neurotic comedy terms, she’s the ideal blond shiksa match for restless, chronically dissatisfied Roger. But of course Baumbach isn’t much interested in old-fashioned Annie HallWhen Harry Met Sally-type laughs.

With Roger, Stiller gets back to the “kick me hard” persona his fans know well from countless movies (The Royal Tenenbaums, Meet the Parents, Flirting with Disaster, etc.). Roger claims to hate Los Angeles, but he understands it like a native and has friends to look up, including his former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans). There’s a bit of bad juju between the two from a failed music-biz deal, but Ivan seems truly happy to reunite with his pal, at least at first. The corrosiveness takes a while to work.

Everything distresses Roger. He can’t swim, so the pool is useless. He doesn’t drive, so he’s always begging Ivan or Florence for a lift. He’s annoyed with the pool-sharing neighbors, who awaken him every morning with their splashing and chatter. When Ivan and Florence surprise him with a birthday celebration at Musso & Frank’s restaurant, Roger responds with a childish temper tantrum. He pops pills constantly. He’s bitter about being middle-aged.

At first, Florence views Roger as yet another hurdle in her lonely career as a gofer, but after awhile we sense she has developed a fondness for him, despite their age difference (he’s 41; she’s 25) and Roger’s appalling manners. Their fumbling first sex scene is one of the most uncomfortable screen couplings in recent memory — a forcible rape might have had more tenderness. Gerwig, renowned as the “Queen of Mumblecore” for her slacker-icon roles in such shoestring-indie pics as Baghead and The House of the Devil, endows Florence with a sheen of diffidence. It’s really a wall from behind which she surveys her life, warily.

Florence is no comic-dartboard There’s Something About Mary foil for Stiller’s antics — she’s every bit as visibly bruised as he is. That’s the difference between Baumbach and the Farrelly Bros./Zoolander approach to neurotic humor. In a lowbrow romp with, say, Greg Focker, it’s safe to relax and laugh at the clown. With the creator of The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, the humor crosses over into pathos early and often. The clown is visibly pained and the laughs hurt everybody’s feelings, even our own. Note how many people in the movie audience dare to snort at Florence’s pitiful song performance at the open stage.

During his stay in LA, Roger has hopes for a reunion with his ex, Beth, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Leigh, a charismatic actor unafraid to mix vulnerability with menace, collaborated with director Baumbach (her real-life husband) on the scenario and it works like a charm, with the pathetic-into-exhilarating Stiller and Gerwig combination leading the way. Her acting-writing teaming with Baumbach is just as exciting as Stiller’s triumphant return to the neurotic kingdom. Misery loves company.

Chloe follows another well-worn narrative path, the marital strife triangle, with disappointing but vividly lurid results. Trouble develops when frustrated Toronto wife Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore), who happens to be a gynecologist, suspects her university drama professor husband, David (Liam Neeson), of diddling his female students, among others. The focus of Catherine’s investigation is Chloe, a downtown call girl (Amanda Seyfried from Jennifer’s Body and Dear John). In a surprise twist, Catherine hires Chloe to seduce David — the better to understand his motives — but the strategy races out of control.

Atom Egoyan, arguably Canada’s best known purveyor of serious dramas of urban angst, didn’t write Chloe — he only directs it, from a screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, adapted from Anne Fontaine’s 2003 French film Nathalie. Somehow Egoyan’s heart and soul don’t seem to be in it. The horror-movie mechanics of Chloe’s manipulation of the hapless middle-class family ultimately have more in common with the musings of another Canadian ace, David Cronenberg, or perhaps those of Michael Haneke. It might have been fun to see what Stuart Gordon (The Re-Animator) would have made of it, with or without a hand from David Mamet. None of that prevents Moore from stealing what’s left of the histrionics. Her walk on the wild side is arguably credible. Wish we could say that for Neeson’s tart-bait horn-dog and Seyfried’s predatory poule deluxe.


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