Ben Stiller’s Greenberg

Before the “Night at the Museum” and “Meet the Parents” franchises made Ben Stiller one of the biggest comic superstars of his generation, the actor played the dramatic lead in a riveting independent film, “Permanent Midnight,” based on Jerry Stahl’s memoir of battling drug addiction while working as a television writer.  At the time, Stiller told me he was drawn to “Permanent Midnight” because, like Stahl, he considered himself “funny and Jewish and not particularly confident or comfortable” in his own skin. He added that he felt “somewhat of an outcast in the WASP culture;” and that he has felt pressured to assimilate not because he is self-hating, but because he hates when people typecast him.

A dozen years later, the now 44-year-old Stiller has made another independent film in which he plays an even more prickly dramatic lead, awash in midlife crisis.  Stiller portrays the eponymous anti-hero in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” which opens March 19 and revolves around a fortyish misanthrope who is “a potentially repellent walking contradiction, an emotional porcupine who uses what he perceives as brutal honesty in order to perpetuate a big lie, that is, that he doesn’t really need anybody else,” the Hollywood Reporter said.

Having failed to make something of himself while his friends have developed successful careers and families, Roger Greenberg has left New York to house sit for his well-to-do brother in Los Angeles, where he is attempting to recuperate from a nervous breakdown.  There he chances to meet his brother’s twentysomething assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), who turns out to be relationship material, in part because she is so passive she is able to absorb all of Greenberg’s abusive behavior and deflected self-loathing.

The depth of his self-hatred apparently extends to his Jewish background, as evidenced when Greenberg is persuaded to attend a Bel Air bar-be-queue where he meets up with some old Jewish friends.  These men are comfortably chatting about whether anyone has been to so-and-so’s seder;  various Jewish connections, and what constitutes a “Jewish” gesture (“You’re doing this,” one of them says to Greenberg, miming his effusive hand gesticulations).  “I’m half [Jewish],” Greenberg says.  “You look full,” a friend replies.  The appalled Greenberg has as much disdain for this Tribal schmoozing as he professes for his wealthy friends whom, in his opinion, have abandoned creativity in order to become successful. “Most people think I look Italian,” he says, sulkily.  “My mother is actually Protestant, so I’m not Jewish at all.”

Stiller’s own mother, the actress Anne Meara, converted to Judaism upon marrying fellow actor Jerry Stiller; Ben Stiller unabashedly identifies with the Tribe and also has mined his background to comic effect (during his stint as a presenter at the 2010 Academy Awards,  he peppered his “Avatar” spoof with Hebrew).  In “Meet the Parents” and its sequel, “Meet the Fockers,” Stiller plays a nebbishy Jewish nurse who is continually humiliated by his WASP father-in-law (Robert De Niro), a former CIA agent.  The third installment in the franchise, “Little Fockers,” will hit theaters Dec. 22, with a screenplay by Stiller’s longtime in-house writer, John Hamburg.

“The non-Jewish characters in the films are not anti-Semitic,” Hamburg told me last year.  “But there is the sense that Ben feels out of place among WASPS and also because he is a man who is not a doctor, but a nurse, which creates a kind of stigma.”

At the time of the interview in March 2009, Hamburg said he was “doing his own take” on an existing script for “Little Fockers.”  So how will the fictional interfaith couple raise their children? “When you have a couple of kids – when you have twins – and you have a Jewish dad and a non-Jewish mom, you’ve gotta make some compromises,” Hamburg said.  He wasn’t telling whether only one of the children will have a bris.

“Greenberg” is the latest film by Noah Baumbach, who specializes in difficult and despairing characters and who received an Oscar nomination for his excellent 2005 drama “The Squid and the Whale.” In a Journal interview, Baumbach said the title of “Squid” alludes to “The Clash of the Titans” diorama at Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History; but it also becomes a metaphor for the battle between a confused Jewish teenager and his hypercritical, intellectual father (Jeff Daniels).  The characters were inspired by Baumbach’s life with his own parents, both lauded writers, in Brooklyn in the 1980s.  The filmmaker said that even though his mother is Protestant, he identified as Jewish because he felt a connection with the People of the Book.  He wrote “Greenberg” with his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also stars in the movie.  Baumbach and Leigh are expecting their first child this month.

Read our story on Ben Stiller 

Read our story on John Hamburg and the “Meet the Parents” franchise

Our story on Noah Baumbach