Green­berg isn’t lik­able, but ‘Green­berg’ is

Austin American-Statesman - - MOVIES & LIFE -

to judge from the cover of the new “Green­berg” DVD, on which a mod­estly smil­ing Ben Stiller ap­pears to charm Greta Ger­wig with some offhanded joke, you’d think this is just an­other quirky rom-com, full of un­threat­en­ing good vibes.

The de­sign might con­vince a lot of Stiller fans to rent Noah Baumbach’s film. But judg­ing from the “Green­berg” con­ver­sa­tions I’ve heard, a lot of those fans will feel burned by a movie whose hero is de­lib­er­ately prickly — a self-cen­tered, ob­ses­sive mess of a man who could prob­a­bly only be loved by a mother, a woman with se­ri­ous self-es­teem is­sues or movie­go­ers who see a shred (hope­fully no more) of them­selves within him.

The movie’s the­atri­cal poster — in which a scruffy Stiller looks up at an op­pres­sive comic-strip-style thought bal­loon — was a more hon­est advertisement, hint­ing that view­ers were in for two hours with a guy trapped in­side his own head.

Truth in ad­ver­tis­ing aside, the movie prompts that al­ways-rel­e­vant ques­tion: Do you have to like a movie’s char­ac­ters per­son­ally in or­der to en­joy watch­ing it? Many movie­go­ers say yes, and I feel sorry for them when­ever some­thing like “Green­berg” (one of my fa­vorites this year) comes around.

An in­tel­li­gently made film that dares to of­fer an un­like­able pro­tag­o­nist, and man­ages to de­pict him with hon­esty and wit, is a rar­ity worth cel­e­brat­ing — a wel­come break from the wish-fulfillment and cheap thrills movies usu­ally of­fer, and a re­minder that we are sur­rounded in this world by peo­ple we dis­agree with, many of whom de­serve our un­der­stand­ing. Plus, “Green­berg” made me laugh a lot, and that never hurts.

Re­lated to the “Green­berg” ques­tion is an­other: Once you’ve dis­cov­ered that an artist is him­self unlov­able, are you re­quired to dis­avow your en­joy­ment of his work?

In some in­stances, the two are dif­fi­cult to un­tan­gle: Once you’ve heard the pant­ing, rant­ing ev­i­dence of mental ill­ness on those Mel Gib­son phone tapes, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to see the blood­lust in the films he has di­rected with­out fret­ting about his per­sonal demons. Gib­son has a com­pelling artis­tic voice be­hind the cam­era, but crit­ics who as­sailed the gore in “Apoca­lypto” and “The Pas­sion of the Christ” look more jus­ti­fied ev­ery day.

Even Gib­son’s choice of act­ing projects, like Warner’s re­cently re­leased “Edge of Dark­ness,” em­braces vi­o­lent, ob­sessed char­ac­ters. When we al­low our­selves to iden­tify with these re­venge-bent men, are we morally tainted?

In other cases, the dis­tance is greater. What­ever your opin­ion of Woody Allen’s off­screen love life, much of his work has lit­tle to do with it. Take his decades-long ca­reer as a comic es­say­ist, which has just been put out in a quar­tet of Allen-nar­rated record­ings by Au­di­ble. You might dis­ap­prove of Allen’s some­thing-like-in­cest so much you refuse to give him your au­dio­book dol­lars, but that doesn’t mean en­joy­ing Allen’s geek-goofy riffs on ex­is­ten­tial­ism and Dos­toyevsky would make you a dirty old man.

Things get thornier when it comes to the many Allen films in which he woos ladies half his age. For my part, though, Allen’s crimes would have to get a lot more re­pel­lent to quash my en­joy­ment of “Man­hat­tan.”

Then there’s Ro­man Polan­ski, whose case is ir­re­sistibly com­plex. Polan­ski did at least one repug­nant thing back in the ’70s, and it’s a shame that Cal­i­for­nia courts botched his case so badly that it lingers un­re­solved. But Polan­ski’s movies, like “The Ghost Writer” (re­leased on disc next Tues­day by Sum­mit), mine the themes in his bi­og­ra­phy — not only guilt vs. in­no­cence and se­crets vs. ex­po­sure, but the har­row­ing tale of sur­vival in “The Pi­anist” — in such a rich, provoca­tive way that I would never al­low any­one to per­suade me to stop watch­ing them as a ges­ture of protest against his sins.

Some­times, af­ter all, we are en­riched by lis­ten­ing to what un­pleas­ant peo­ple have to say — whether they’re real-life he­donists run amok or mal­con­tents drawn from Noah Baumbach’s imag­i­na­tion.

Ben Stiller’s char­ac­ter looks af­fa­ble on this DVD cover, but he re­ally is a pain.

JOHN De­fOre

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