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Mad Men Commentary: Episode 412 Blowing Smoke

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In this week’s episode of Mad Men, Don and Peggy have yet another of their family squabbles.  Peggy offers some unsolicited (and sound) advice to stressed out Don, who is having none of it, as usual.  Finally, she throws a Don-ism back at the master – “If you don’t like what people are saying, change the conversation.”

Once again, Peggy originates the “kernel” of a great idea that Don runs with and adds his own brilliant spin.  Except this time there’ll be no Clio award.

Changing the conversation can simply be that, or it can mean blowing smoke, as the title of the penultimate episode of this season suggests.  The gang at SCDP are stressed to the breaking point, especially the partners.  Secretaries and copy writers can get jobs elsewhere, but the partners have invested more than their egos in this enterprise, and with the flight of paying customers, it’s coming down to the partners taking out lines of credit just to keep the lights on.  No one likes the conversations that are taking place at SCDP.

The episode, well directed by John Slattery, opens with Don having lunch with an executive from the Vinegar, Sauces & Beans division of Heinz.  This is the same account that Dr. Faye compromised herself for to make Don happy.

But it ain’t going well.  Despite an obvious rapport and an understanding that the executive appreciates, it’s no dice on getting the business – at least for now.  Don pushes and uncovers the barely hidden objection.  Heinz wants to wait six months to give SCDP a shot.  Why?  To see if they’re still around.  Don loses his cool a little, and pushes once more for “yes.”  Nothing.  When Don resorts to a discounted price, the client rises to leave, assures Don that the business will come his way IF he lasts, then suggests that Don sticks to ideas and leaves the deal-making to the account guys.  Ouch!

Back at the office, the top brass meets with a consultant to discuss the future of SCDP.  The consultant, a fat, balding, old man with a smug demeanor paints a picture that everyone gathered knows all to well.  Roger fires off a trademark Roger line – “we know there’s a spot on the lung.  You don’t have to keep poking your finger in it.”

The consultant outlines a plan of action that sounds good.  Based on SCDP’s past success with Lucky Strike – 25 years of expertise, to be exact – they should pursue other tobacco brands.  The cherry on the tobacco sundae is a meeting with Philip Morris – about to launch a new woman’s cigarette to replace the re-branded for men Marlboro –  orchestrated by the consultant.  Backs are slapped.  Assurances are proclaimed.  And Slattery shoots a nice little montage of the SCDP crew responding to the current situation – a bit of confidence in the agency/Don mixed with navel gazing self-interest.

Meanwhile, out in the burbs, Sally and Betty Draper are having a kind of Freaky Friday thing, with Sally looking more like the mature half of the duo than Mom.

Sally visits with Dr. Edna, who tells Sally how proud she is of controlling her anger.  Sally is doing so well, that Dr. Edna suggests they cut their meetings back to only once per week.  All this is done over crazy-eights, as if these were two friends playing cards on a weekday while the kids were at school.

But is it genuine?  Sally is meeting with Glen, the creepy neighbor kid who broke into the house and vandalized it to get back at Betty for Sally.  Glen asks Sally if Dr. Edna has told her kiss her Mom’s ass (or blow smoke), as his doctor did.  Sally assures Glen that Dr. Edna isn’t like that, and again, she seems so self-possessed.  Is this a pose, or has Sally achieved some new level of maturity?

At another of their secret-but-innocent meetings, Sally goes deep on Glen by asking him if he ever noticed the Indian lady on the box of Land O Lakes butter?  She holds a box with a picture of her holding another box with yet another picture of her holding a box….  Glen says he wishes she hadn’t mentioned that, and you can already see them in the not-to-distant future, sharing similar discoveries over a joint.  Or maybe not.

And what’s up with Sally paying such close attention to packaged food?  Is this some sort of nod to her old man, with whom she is more partial?

On the flip side of all this deepness and maturity is Betty, who also pays a visit to Dr. Edna, whom she has come to depend on for some sense of security.  And in stark contrast to Sally, who’s been praised for controlling her anger, Betty launches into a bitch session against Henry, recounting an argument where she slammed doors to punctuate a point, only to find that Henry hadn’t heard her.  She compares him to Don, but Dr. Edna sees through all of this.

When notified of the recommendation to cut Sally’s sessions down to only once a week, Betty makes it about her and panics.  She needs Dr. Edna way more than Sally does.  When Dr. Edna suggests that Betty see a colleague, Betty says it all when she asks, “Why can’t I talk to you?”  If you didn’t get that, then let Dr. Edna help – “I’m a child psychiatrist.”  To be fair, who wouldn’t want to talk to Dr. Edna once or twice a week?

Another woman who used to sleep with Don figures prominently in this episode.  As Don leaves work, who does he bump into in the lobby of the Time-Life building but Midge Daniels, the greeting card artist/hippie he was sleeping with back in season one, when we first met him.

Pleasantries are exchanged.  She learns that he’s divorced.  He learns that she’s married, but it’s a marriage of convenience, not passion.  He compliments her looks, but she squirms and says she’s skinny – a starving artist.

Don tries to evade a “drink,” but Midge persists, eventually playing on his square sense of chivalry by confessing that she’s lost her purse and has no train fare home.  Don relents, and a weird scene is played out in the shabby apartment of Midge and her husband, a struggling playwright.

Midge excuses herself, and the husband launches into a desperate sales pitch, seeing Don as a mark.  Don admires the painting, but is non-commital.  This leads the husband to up the ante by offering Midge as part of the deal, saying there’s nothing she won’t do to close a deal.  Don recoils at the vulgarity of the offer, and in that moment we see a mirroring of what Don has been through earlier with the executive from Heinz.

The husband also lets it slip that Midge didn’t just bump into Don, but tracked him down, seemingly for the purpose of getting into his wallet…via the fly of his pants, if necessary.  If this wasn’t bad enough, Don learns that Midge and her husband have a heroin addiction that neither of them can or will kick.

Don buys Midge’s painting, and gets out of her apartment as quickly as possible, but not before she tells him, “I’m glad you haven’t changed.”  We’re left to wonder whether this is a blessing or a curse.

This is significant.  Midge is/was an artist, someone Don respected.  It’s safe to say that Don considers himself, if not an artist, then something approaching one.  Regardless, he uses words and images to tell a story and evoke an emotion, arguably not too unlike what the artist does.  Midge becomes a mirror, reflecting back the ugliness in Don’s life.  This point is made stronger a day later, when Don sits in front of Midge’s painting for a long time, absorbing the “after image” until he is moved to do something about what he sees.

The next day, we find Don in his office, nervously pacing and reciting verbal warm-ups.  It’s not the Don we’re used to seeing.  This is more like Korea-era Don/Dick Whitman.  But the preparation and warm-ups are for naught.  As Don gets word that the partners are in the lobby waiting for Philip Morris to arrive, he joins them as the consultant steps out of the elevator alone.  There will be no meeting.  SCDP was used as leverage against another agency.

Bert herds the partners into an office, where panic ensues.  Harry and Ken sit in the next office wit their ears to the wall as the bosses resort to name calling and chicken-littlery.  Finally, Don calls the spade a spade by saying that the reason non one  will really do business with them now is that they reek of desperation.  This quiets them all down enough for Lane to announce a plan that is the lesser of evils – the senior partners must contribute $100K each and the two junior partners, him and Pete, will contribute $50K each.  That, along with a series of brutal firings, will be enough to keep them afloat for six months – that magic number that keeps being flown around as the gestation period for resuming business with SCDP.

All but Pete takes this news in stride.  Being new to this level of accountability, along with a brand new baby and a job offer from a dreaded rival, Pete waffles.  $50K is a big, bitter pill for him to swallow, and after a heated exchange with Don and a fight with his wife, Pete seems at the end of his rope.  He’s actually sympathetic in this case.  He’s been busting his hump bringing in accounts, one of whom had to be jettisoned for Don’s safety, while Roger can’t manager the one client in his book – their cash cow.

When Pete goes to Don for some sort of explanation or assurance (and hasn’t he learned better by now?), Don has nothing for him but a barked exhortation to get Don in front of a paying client.  Not willing to accept that answer, Pete asks Don why he’s being punished for the sins of others.  At this, all Don can say is that they are all being punished equally.  And with that, Pete is whisked out of his presence.

Enter Peggy, who steps forward on behalf of the staff, wanting to know what Don would have them do.  This is a testament to the respect that Don still wields that when everything else is in flames and ruin is quick approaching, his team is ready for action.  But Don has no orders or answers.  He seems content to sit and let the burning building collapse on him.

But not Peggy, who’s been thinking about their conundrum.  She throws out ideas that Don craps all over (including changing their name, which seemed like a very good idea – and one that looks increasingly likely), until she lobs his own mantra back in his face, a la changing the conversation.  That said, she turns and leaves Don to his anger – no smoke blower she.

At the end of the day, Don returns home to find #4, Midge’s painting, waiting for him like a guilty conscience.  He starts to throw it away, but stops and sets the painting on the couch and grabs a chair and sits and stares at this thing, soaking up the afterimage of Midge and what her life has come to – and where Don’s life is surely leading.

Later, when it’s dark, Don goes to his writing table and rips a bunch of scribbled over pages from the journal he keeps and tosses them in the trash.  It’s as if he’s making a fresh start, and when the narration kicks in, we know that it is indeed a fresh start.

“Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” is Don’s Jerry Maguire moment, and although many see this as a cynical ploy, I think there is sincerity in Don’s words.  Pete will characterize it as throwing a temper tantrum on the pages of the New York Times, which is a fair assessment.  Even Don would characterize it as such (or maybe even as blowing smoke, if not blowing Lucky Strike), but as we’ve seen with his other writings, there’s depth to the man, despite the deep flaws.

The next morning is weird.  Don gets up early and swims laps and seems to have the peace of just.  And there’s this weird dichotomy.  The rank and file ad people look at him anew, as though he’s just slain Goliath.  Even that smartass Stan gives him an oh-so-faint tip of the cap as they run into each other in the hallway.  The old Don is back.

Megan, too, can hardly contain herself, but first let’s deal with the partners.

The partners storm into Don’s office like angry villagers hunting for witches, only needing torches and pitchforks to complete to picture.  Don is greeting by jeers and accusations, especially from Bert who totally loses his cool – ultimately and hilariously resigning his partnership by calling to a random employee, “You!  Bring me my shoes!”

Each has their say, but it’s Roger who seems somewhat sympathetic to what Don has done, if only for the sense of theatre.  I think Don believed that he would be greeted as a hero, and as his bile rises, he tells Pete, but it could’ve been directed at them all, “If you don’t understand it, you shouldn’t be in the business.”  It’s the difference between the visionary and the drone, the leader and the led.  It’s what Don brings to the table. And they don’t get it at all – he’s completely changed the conversation.

But they think he’s just blowing smoke.

When Don arrived, Megan mentioned that an Emerson Foote had called.  This is interesting, and could be the next “real” person, a la Conrad Hilton, to show up in the series.  Foote is one of the iconic figures of advertising, famous, among other things, for resigning the American Tobacco account, which constituted 20% of his agency’s billings – and counted Lucky Strike among its brands.  Foote became a vocal opponent of tobacco advertising, and served in the Johnson administration and the American Cancer Society at about the time that Don pens his manifesto.  We’ll see what happens.

Throughout the day, the fallout of Don’s actions impact SCDP in unexpected ways.  Where calls weren’t being returned in the wake of Lucky Srike, now everyone wants to talk to/about SCDP.  Don has created buzz.  He’s hijacked reality by spinning the Lucky Strike decision as one of conscience, not business as usual.

Another unintended consequence is the resigning of the SCDP account by Geoffrey Atherton – Dr. Faye’s employer.  Don expects anger from Faye, but instead, she seems to hold him in even higher esteem, wanting to take their relationship out in the open, now that professionalism isn’t an issue.

Earlier in the episode, when Don and Faye meet, we see Megan through the glass of the board room – a perfect triangle.  When Faye shows up to tell Don of her company’s decision, there’s this icy vibe coming from Faye, as if she knows what has happened (and how could she not, unless her olfactory senses weren’t functioning the night Don found her on his doorstep after his tryst with Megan?).  The final touch is when they finalize dinner plans and Faye tells Don to “have your girl make the reservations.”  Don seems clueless, but we know that she knows.

The one person whom Don seeks out for feedback is Peggy, of course.  We hope he’s learned his lesson and gives her credit for sparking the idea….  Yeah, right.  When he asks what she thinks, she withholds her praise by throwing another of his philosophies back in his face – “I thought you didn’t go in for those shenanigans?”

As a way out of the SCDP mess is just beginning to come hazily into view, Betty sees a way out of her Dr. Edna problem.  She catches Sally with Glen and completely overreacts, accusing Sally in thought, if not actual words, of doing inappropriate things with Glen.  And with Glen’s track record, you almost sympathize with her, except that she overplays her hand.

When Henry shows up unexpectedly early for dinner, Betty plays her card, telling Henry – in Sally’s presence – that it was a bad day, that the neighborhood is going downhill, and that they should move.  This news brightens Henry, but sends Sally running off to her room, where she clutches the keepsake left by Glen on the night of his vandalism.

Betty’s victory is that she has proof that Sally isn’t “cured,” that she still needs her twice a week visit, and thus Betty’s, to the doctor to get fixed.  Sally knows her Mom is blowing smoke, but will Dr. Edna?

Finally, we have the partners, reassembled with Joan for a regular board meeting.  They’ve agreed who will be fired, and the list has been divided among them for notifications and severance.

In the midst of this glum news comes word of a call from the aforementioned American Cancer Society, who wants to talk about a possible campaign.  Pete is unimpressed, as it means free work.  But the others see it as prestige and access to the Society’s influential board.  It’s a ray of hope.  A toe-hold.  Something.

As the meeting breaks-up, Pete calls Lane to him.  As Roger leaves, he gets the last laugh – “Well, I’ve got to go and learn a bunch of peoples’ names before I fire them.”  When he’s gone, Pete confesses to Lane that he cannot come up with the $50K.  Lane is confused.  “Don paid your share,” he tells Pete.

Stunned, Pete steps into the hallway, to see Don leading Danny Siegel into his office.  They share a glance.  Don nods.  Pete raises his glass in solidarity, then moves on.

A moment later, Don emerges with a composed and professional Danny.  They shake and Danny leaves.  Don pauses before calling the next victim.  He looks around at the carnage.  Women sobbing and consoling one another.  Men sagging under the weight of their boxed possessions and stalled-out hopes.  It’s a very bad day at SCDP.

But they’re alive – still drawing breath, still blowing smoke.

Mad Men Commentary: Episode 411 The Chinese Wall

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This week’s episode of Mad Men, “The Chinese Wall”, seemed like an opportunity for us to catch our breath and for the stage to be set for the season’s finale, which is coming in what, one or two episodes?  But first, what is a Chinese wall?  The term got its start in the financial world, but has been extended to refer to any barrier that restricts the flow of information within an organization.

This week, the cat is let out of the bag on Lucky Strike.  Roger has been acting as a Chinese wall, keeping the news of the impending loss from everyone at SCDP.  Ken Cosgrove, while on a date with his fiancé and future in-laws, runs into a rival from BBDO, the firm that has won the Lucky Strike account, who informs him of the bad news.  Ken tries to resume his meal, but in this world, it’s business before pleasure, and he runs off to find Pete Campbell, who’s at the hospital awaiting the birth of his second child (the first being w/Peggy, of course).  Pete follows Ken’s work-first lead and the two of them call Don and wind up in Roger’s office with Bert for a late night summit meeting.  Losing this account is akin to getting a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, so it’s all hands on deck.

Roger is the last to arrive, and pretends to call Lee Garner Jr.  With his thumb pushing down the receiver, he play acts at learning of the loss of the account.  After a heated exchange, he tells the men that he’s been hung up on.  Don immediately volunteers to go with Roger to North Carolina in the morning, but Roger rebuffs the offer, saying he’ll go it alone, knowing full well that the trip is doubly impossible, since he’s known about this for a week or two.

SCDP is in crisis mode.

As the pressure mounts, we see the principals in the firm tested, each in his own way.  Roger handles his by compounding his fraud by only pretending to fly to NC.  His call to Bert and the boys, the following day, is made not from the offices of American Tobacco, but from a nearby hotel room.  Roger’s fate as a totally irrelevant relic of a bygone era is all but sealed in this episode.  A mirror of this is represented in the death of a rival account man from a competing firm, a man with as WASPy a name as Roger’s – David Montgomery.

As everyone else in the firm is scrambling to protect the remaining accounts from a panic-induced flight, Roger sits in the same hotel room, drinking and feeling sorry for himself.  It’s all he knows.  Later, when he calls Joan and confesses, she’s obviously disgusted at his admission, and we can sense her respect for Roger (and thus, her romantic attraction) quickly fading to pity and perhaps anger, for now she is a Chinese Wall, if she chooses not to rat out her lover.

But at least Roger gets the best lines.  After paying a surprise visit to Joan at her apartment, in which he is rejected, Roger gets his coat and hat and pauses at the door.  “So that night we were mugged, that was the last time? [pause]  I wish I’d of known.”  Why, to savor the moment or take a bullet?  Bert gives what may be Roger’s epitaph the following day when he tells a defeated Roger, “Lee Garner never took you seriously because you never took yourself seriously.”  Touché’.

In the meantime, Bert and Don rally the troops, along with one of Lane’s lieutenants from accounting.  Don keeps the full impact of Lucky Strike’s departure from the staff, assuring everyone that even though the cash cow has died, everything will be fine.  Because Don is so highly revered, the staff seems to accept the news as a minor setback.

At the end of last season, Don led the rebellion that gave birth to SCDP, and in this episode, he is accountable for the failings of the firm.  Roger is as good as gone.  Bert is passé.  Lane is in London.  Pete is not ready for prime time.  And despite snapping unfairly at Pete at the loss of Glocoat, he handles himself fairly well…that is, until it comes to his women.

After a long day of being rejected by fleeing clients, Faye pays Don a visit to check-up on him.  As they talk, he asks her how she copes with rejection.  When she mentions angry clients, he asks which ones, meaning he wants some insider information.  Faye bristles at Don’s impropriety, offended that he would cross that line.  The scene quickly devolves to a fight in which Faye storms off into the night, but maintains her integrity…and dignity.

24 hours later, Don is wrapping up yet another rough day when Megan, his beautiful French Canadian secretary refuses to take no for an answer when she offers to help him work late into the night.  She out-Dons Don in this scene, smoothly seducing him (not exactly heavy lifting when we’re talking about Don Draper) by assuring him that their fling means nothing beyond that moment on that couch (we’ll see about that.  Can you say “Jane Siegel”?).  She’s done her homework, even going so far as to say that she, like Don, only judges people on their work, with everything else being sentimental.  Don, of course, is game.  Nothing clears Don Draper’s head like a one-night stand.

The cosmic check comes due on the Megan decision later that evening when Don finds Faye in the hallway of his apartment, leaving a note for him.  It may be a break-up note.  Fay invites herself in, and we find out, instead, that she’s compromised herself.  She’s brought Don a meeting with Heinz.  And with that decision, that toppling of the Chinese wall, we see some of the dignity leak out of another character.  The message is brought home when Don and Faye end up on the couch in the exact same pose as Roger and Jane from a scene or two earlier.  It’s a beautiful mirroring act.  Roger cares nothing for Jane, of course, and we’re left to guess that it’s the same for Don and Faye, a good woman who genuinely cares for Don, but who has sold herself out for him.

Speaking of Jane, after Megan and Don’s fling, there’s a cut to Jane at home, waiting on Roger.  This paring means something – is it that Megan, like Jane, is a conniving climber, looking for a trophy husband?  Perhaps.  She said she wouldn’t run weeping out of the office after her one-night-stand.  I think her grasping of Don’s arm, followed by warning against drinking too much might be a clue as to whom we’re dealing with.  She makes an implicit promise to be discrete – to keep this information to herself.

And then there’s Peggy.  In this episode, we see Peggy reach an important milestone in her career, but it’s as if it’s merely a footnote to the larger drama.  Indeed, Peggy spends the episode cut off from the rest of the SCDP action, in her own little bubble on the outside of the fear and drama that has come with the Lucky Strike bombshell.  While everyone else is running around putting out fires, Peggy is happy-go-lucky, taking the pressure of giving a solo pitch in stride, suffering the constant hazing of Stan with good natured aplomb, and knocking her pitch out of the park, despite having lipstick smeared across her teeth.  Sometimes walls punish.  Sometimes they protect.  For example, by not knowing that she had the lipstick smeared on her teeth, Peggy had no self-consciousness.

Though she’s only in a few scenes, the one’s where we see Peggy are priceless: the relaxation exercise with Stan, designed to loosen her up before the big pitch (and give Stan an opportunity to steal a kiss); the meeting with Danny, where Peggy does her own take on a Don Draper poetic finale to a presentation.  And of course, her lipstick smeared pitch.

Finally, there’s the funeral scene, where Bert, Don, Pete, and Freddy Rumsen have gone to troll for business.  It’s a beautifully constructed moment.  Montgomery’s widow and daughter sit next to the dais, glum and vacant.  Two speakers give remarkable speeches that are designed to be testimonials of what a great guy Montgomery was, but what we learn instead is that he spent almost all of his time away from his family.  One man tells of the time Montgomery missed his daughter’s fifth birthday (cut to Pete, missing the birth of his own daughter) to win the Buick account in Detroit.  Montgomery compensated with a thoughtful present.  Another man told of the thimbles Montgomery collected in England while away on business, yet another male-oriented testimonial to the man’s sensitivity – that somehow, the tokens that Montgomery purchased should be sufficient substitutes for having the actual man present in the lives of his wife and daughter.

And it’s here that the meaning of the Chinese wall is expanded, I think, to include the barrier between work and home.  Don and Pete and Ken and Pete’s father-in-law have all, like the deceased Montgomery, put work before family, and only Don seems to grasp this during the eulogies for the dead rival.  And seeing that Don recognizes this on some level is what is so infuriating about the man.  There is depth to him, for sure, but he can’t pull himself out of the muck and mire of the bad decisions he can’t quit making.

And so, at the end of the episode, as Don sits on the couch, a mirror of his hollow mentor, we can only guess at his state of mind.  Is he repentant of his transgressions against Faye, or is he only sleeping, having moved already moved on, if only in his mind?

Film Review: Greenberg

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In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield’s oft-quoted meditation on the act of creating, he describes the great enemy of our creative impulses, that constant negative force that seeks to block us from rising to our higher level, a mocking, doubting-Thomas voice that rises up to tear us down when we strive for something better.  Pressfield calls this force Resistance, and in his cataloguing of the methods employed by Resistance to keep us stuck where we are, he could have included a DVD of “Greenberg”, the latest release from Noah Baumbach, the director of The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and co-writer of Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, is a man plagued by the fallout of a colossal failure from fifteen years earlier.  When we meet him, he’s just been released from a New York psychiatric hospital and has travelled to Los Angeles to housesit for his more successful brother.

It turns out that Roger was once the front man for an up-and-coming rock band, and on the eve of making it – of being signed by a major label – Roger freaked out – gave in to Resistance – and single-handedly killed the record deal, along with his band-mates’ careers in music.  Roger ended up in New York, a carpenter, cynic, and a writer of sarcastic and angry letters to companies and governmental agencies that don’t measure up to his perfectionistic standards of excellence.

Once in LA, Roger re-connects with old friends, like former band-mate Ivan, who know nothing of his breakdown, and are   He declares that he just wants “to do nothing for a while,” which is perhaps the highest expression of Resistance.  It’s also a project at which he fails miserably.

First, he re-connects with an old girlfriend, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, at a party and learns that she’s going through a divorce.  She reminds him of himself pre-collapse, and he sets out on a half-hearted attempt at rekindling the flame.

Second, and more pivotal, is Florence, played by indie it-girl Greta Gerwig, the personal assistant of Roger’s brother.  Florence is a woman cast adrift in her mid-20’s, alone and unsure of what to do with her life.  That is, until she meets Roger.

Having gotten his old girlfriend’s phone number, Roger can’t bring himself to call her.  Instead, he reaches out to Florence, time and again, to avoid being lonely.  An unlikely bond takes root as Roger at first uses Florence, but comes to depend on her good will and unspoiled nature to help him regain himself.

But it ain’t easy.  Throughout the film, Roger pushes Florence away, in favor of his quixotic pursuit of the old flame.  It’s this inability to let go of the past emerges as Roger’s (and Florence’s) primary stumbling block to contentment.

Greenberg is filled with fine performances, with Ben Stiller leading the way.  Though he’s played variations on this angry, dysfunctional guy before, Stiller has never been this good, this complete in his portrayal of a deeply flawed character.  It’s a testament to his performance that we root for him, even as he behaves terribly.

Similarly, Greta Gerwig takes a spin in familiar territory playing a girl who’s just getting started without a clue as to where she’s headed.  See her in Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes The Stairs and you’ll see a progression from Mumblecore goddess to mainstream movie star that is as seamless as it is appealing.  Gerwig keeps us from writing Florence off as a masochistic loser by infusing her with depth and sureness of purpose, even as we question her choices.

Rounding out this fine cast is Rhys Ifans, from Notting Hill, Roger’s former songwriting partner who has struggled with life after music, but comes to not only accept but also love the life he’s struggling to maintain.  As Ivan suffers through Roger’s self-obsessed rants and tantrums, he finally explodes on Roger near the end of the movie, and as he vents his anger at Roger’s thoughtlessness, he inadvertently challenges Roger to a new mission.  “…to embrace the life you never planned up.”

With credits that include Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and now Greenberg, Noah Baumbach is building an admirable catalog of very good films that feel like they could have been adapted from great American novels, complete with memorably quirky characters that challenge the conventions of what film heroes and heroines are supposed to be. Roger Greenberg is his most daring yet.  In giving us a protagonist who is angry, whiny, self-absorbed, and a whole host of other negative traits, Baumbach challenges us to see past the outward expression and find ourselves in Roger’s struggle.

The people in Roger’s world all roll with life’s punches and fight Resistance in their own way – some more successfully than the others.  And by coming home, at long last, Roger must decide whether to stay mired in the past or join the fight for an uncertain future.