In these confessional, porn-saturated days, it’s getting harder for fictional characters to do something so outrageous that we can’t empathize with them. One of the biggest risks left for a filmmaker to take is to focus on a main character who is so narcissistic he hurts everyone he gets close to—particularly the women who love him. Both of the movies I saw yesterday, Greenberg and Solitary Man, take on that challenge, and I wanted to see if they could win my sympathy for their Hurricane Harry main characters.
It’s always been tough for women to get by with that sort of thing in the movies. From the evil daughter in Mildred Pierce to the bad mom in White Oleander, selfish women tend to get their comeuppance on screen. Even in film noir, where bad girls behave very badly and get away with it, we don’t usually like the femmes fatales, though it’s obvious why the hapless heroes fall for them.
The movies have a long, rich tradition of celebrating male leads who act like jerks, men who are adored in spite of—maybe even because of—their near-sociopathic callousness toward women and other living creatures. Like Bond, James Bond, for example. But that may be changing. The male self-pity of The Wrestler, which asks you to cry for its main character even as he strews pain in his wake like Hansel and Gretel laying down bread crumbs, felt a little retro to me. More typical of recent movies is the psychological approach taken by Crazy Heart and Roger Dodger. Rather than unquestioningly adopting their bad boys’ point of view, the people behind these movies look at their pain-dispensing protagonists with a nearly objective eye. They also ask us to identify with the people their protagonists victimize, wanting what’s best for them even when that means breaking free from our dysfunctional heroes.
Jesse Eisenberg, one of those appealingly non-macho young actors who seem to be everywhere these days, is making a career of playing the anti-Bond in character studies of men behaving badly. In Roger Dodger he plays a young man who starts out idolizing his uncle Roger, a smooth-talking ladies’ man who takes it upon himself to teach the boy the ropes. But the kid, who has scruples and sensitivities the older man ditched long ago, winds up schooling his uncle, seeing him for the damaged goods he really is. Eisenberg played similar roles in Zombieland and Adventureland, and now in Solitary Man.
Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), Solitary Man’s aging alpha dog, is a car salesman clinging to the far side of middle age who has betrayed everyone who ever counted on him. Still full of pizzazz and gorgeous in the right light (though he can look pretty rough in the morning), Ben is a serial, maybe even compulsive, womanizer. He doesn’t seem to get much joy from his conquests (or from anything else), but his fast talk and size-’em-up stare make him fun to watch in action (his specialty is summing people up when he first meets them, like a psychic who’s worth the 10 bucks).
A born salesman, Ben is always pulling people close, but he never lets them in, pushing them away with flashes of cold fury or contempt if he doesn’t lose them through indifference and neglect. True to its title, the movie often shows him on his own, usually caught in a wide shot that exaggerates his solitude as he strides through a landscape or stops for a rare moment of introspection.
It’s when he’s alone that we see him most clearly. Douglas drops the macho swagger he usually wears like a trenchcoat—a swagger this character probably shared when he was younger—to do something subtler and a lot more interesting. Ben acts like a master of the universe, and years of practice have made him very good at it. But the way Douglas barrels down a hallway toward a man who he knows will probably reject his pitch, the panic that flares up now and then in his eyes, and the weariness in his face when he’s in private clue us in on the effort it takes Ben to pull off that act.
Even so, I don’t think I would have cared about this slick operator if his ex-wife (played by Susan Sarandon and her lushly displayed breasts, in full earth-mother mode), daughter (Office sweetheart Jenna Fischer), and old friend Jimmy (Danny DeVito) weren’t so loyal to him. Having felt the pain he’s inflicted on them, you figure there has to be some pretty powerful good in Ben to make them love him still.
Greenberg asks for our sympathy for the victims of its train-wreck title character right from the start. Instead of opening on Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), it starts with Florence (Greta Gerwig), the lovely young woman Greenberg takes up with and then treats abominably. When Randy the Ram mistreated Marisa Tomei’s saintly stripper in The Wrestler, we were supposed to root for them to get together anyhow, but Greenberg’s writer-director Noah Baumbach makes you want to shout at Florence, like the minstrel in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Run away! Run away!” And yet, as in Solitary Man, we need Florence to stay if the movie is to work, since her faith in Greenberg is one of the few things that keeps us from giving up on him.
Greenberg is a hollow, panicked man who has no idea what to do with himself (he’s visually paired—twice, in case we missed it the first time—with one of those windsock men that flutter and bend with the breeze). He shows up in his hometown of Los Angeles, after a long absence, to look after his brother’s house while the brother and his family are on vacation.
No sooner has Greenberg hooked up with Florence and an old friend from his past, Ivan (a kind and careworn Rhys Ifans), than he starts to abuse them both, and he barely seems aware of, let along sorry for, his own cruelty and selfishness. Stiller, whose résumé includes a whole gallery of neurotic jerks, makes Greenberg into a hedgehog of a man: a stiff, defensive mass of nervous tics and temper tantrums. There are just enough hints of humanity—his growing attachment to his brother’s dog, moments where he shows us the vulnerability Florence sees from the start—to make him bearable. And then there’s the love that Florence and Ivan continue to feel for him. “Hurt people hurt people,” Florence murmurs to explain Greenberg’s bad behavior. That could serve as the tagline for this movie—and for Solitary Man.
Greenberg’s neatly constructed plot is intentionally undramatic, flowing from one slice-of-life incident to the next. Greenberg, who can’t drive, enlists Florence to help him take the dog to the vet. Greenberg goes out at night to hear Florence sing at a near-empty bar, where he stares at her hungrily but can’t join her and her friends afterward. Greenberg’s friend takes him out for a lonely birthday dinner, which livens up when he invites Florence on impulse. And so on, up until the cathartic not-quite-apology and explanation Greenberg delivers.
Ben made the same kind of speech at the end of Solitary Man. Both of these clear-eyed character studies stop short of a happily-ever-after ending for their flawed protagonists, who seem perfectly capable of screwing things up again. But they made me empathize enough to move them from my mental reject pile to the maybes.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.