For a couple of years, I have been reluctant to comment in print on Noah Baumbach’s movie, Greenberg (2010), which loosely is based on the relationship between my younger brother, Roger, and me. As you may recall, the major characters in the film are Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, and Ivan Schrank, played by Rhys Ifans. The movie is set in Los Angeles in the contemporary period and follows their relationship as Roger recovers from a psychiatric condition and wants to do “nothing” and Ivan is uncomfortably struggling with issues of love and work. The two characters, who once were close friends as musicians in a band, had not seen each other in a while.
Neither Roger nor Ivan in the film strictly is based on the real-life Roger or Ivan. But, Noah has created composite characters, drawing upon aspects of our personalities and life histories. I have an older brother Michael in real-life and he, too, makes a cameo in the movie as the older brother of the Stiller character who has left country with his family on a vacation. In fact, my older brother Michael often was absent from the real-life Greenberg family and had left the country for an extended period to study medicine overseas. The real-life Michael never had close relationships with his two brothers, while Roger and me had a very close relationship for a long period.
I have been reluctant to comment on the movie for a number of reasons. First, I did not want to draw attention to myself or my family for strictly personal reasons. It is highly unusual for a director to use the names of living people in a fictional film, and to base the movie in part on them. Second, I did not want to interfere with Noah’s creation. That is, I did not want to add a new layer of meaning to the film by exposing his characters, and making an association, with living people and their lives. However, by now the movie is history, and no longer is a subject of conversation, so the time seems ripe to offer some comments on the ways the movie is true to real-life and also on the ways that the movie has impacted my life. I offer some “behind the scenes” details as well. I hope Noah does not take offense at these comments, but it does not really matter since he never asked permission to use the Greenberg names in the film. Nor did he tell the Greenbergs about the film before it appeared.
But I got wind of it ahead of time. It was inadvertent, and something initially of a shock. My girlfriend at the time, Nancy, had spent a Friday night at my apartment in the Bronx. In the morning, she went online on my computer to read the newspaper and several of her other favorite sites. As a guilty pleasure, she occasionally would peruse the website of celebrity gossip columnist Perez Hilton. She called it her “escape.” Nancy is an American history professor, who studies immigration and ethnicity. Her following of celebrity news is very far afield from her usual interests.
“Hey Ivan,” she says to me. I am sitting in a lounge chair across from her in my bedroom. “There is a movie coming out named Greenberg.
“What do you mean?” I respond.
“It is in production. I am reading Perez Hilton,” she says sheepishly.
“What? What is it about?” I ask.
She says the director is Noah Baumbach.
I am surprised. “Noah Baumbach? I know him.”
Nancy begins to read the article out loud to me. Perez reports the plans for the movie, which will star the actor Mark Ruffalo in the main role.
“There is a picture of Ruffalo,” she says. “He looks like you.”
I walk over to the computer and peek at the screen. “Oh shit,” I say. “There is an obvious resemblance. I have seen some of Ruffalo’s movies. I like the type of off-beat characters he often plays.
“Who else is in it?” I ask.
Nancy tells me, “They haven’t chosen a co-star yet. It is set in L.A.”
“What’s the plot?” I ask. “Is Noah making a movie about me?”
Nancy says, “There is a character named Ivan in the movie.” She is in shock. “Also Roger. Roger Greenberg.” She knows that my younger brother is named Roger, although she has yet to meet him.
“Who plays Ivan?” I ask. She tells me it is Rhys Ifans. She relays his movie credits. Apparently, he has a big fan following, but I do not know his work well.
“Are you sure the name of the movie is Greenberg?
“Yes. Greenberg. One word.
“Oh my God,” I say. “This is news to me. I haven’t seen Noah in at least a decade.” I then begin to describe how I know Noah. “You know, the name Ivan appeared in one of his other movies, as did the name Greenberg. It was his film, The Squid and the Whale.” Nancy, who I had been dating for about a year, is excited. My emotions are mixed. What is happening? What is the movie about? What does the character Ivan say and do? Roger and me? I wonder if my brother knows about it.
Noah’s parents and my parents used to be close friends while I was growing up during the 1970s. My mother, Dolores, met Noah’s father, Jonathan, while they were undergraduates at Brooklyn College, CUNY, during the early 1950s. At the time, my mother was married and my parents formed a lasting friendship with Jonathan that was solid for many years. Noah’s father and my parents earned doctorates and became college professors in the CUNY system. Jonathan taught writing at Brooklyn College. Dolores taught American history at Hunter College. My father, Robert, taught English literature at Queens College. They moved in the same intellectual circle in New York City. When I was young, our families often got together socially, and the children became friends. Noah was several years younger than me and he was closer to my brother Roger. Still, we had many dinners together and I must have impressed Noah in some way.
Over the years, Noah and I had very little contact, although Roger remained in touch with him. Apparently, Noah heard details of my life from a close friend of my mother’s, Pat, who also remained close to Noah. So my connection to Noah was made through Pat. My mother used to tell me about Noah as she heard gossip from Pat.
So, after I hear that the Greenberg movie is in production, I call both Roger and my mother to ask if they had heard about it. No, they say. In fact, Roger, who had become a lawyer, was startled that his full name was being used. He soon emailed Noah to inquire about the content of the film. After Noah told him about the film, Roger reluctantly went along without making a fuss. In fact, Roger, in a nod to me, asked Noah a favor. My son, Andrew, was an undergraduate at UCLA not far from where the movie was being produced. Could Noah let him visit the set or intern on the movie? At first, Noah resisted this interference but eventually let Andrew come to the set and put him in the film as an extra, with some of his friends, in the long party scene at the end of the movie. Actually, Noah asked Andrew if he could round up ten of his friends to pose as party-goers in that scene. He got paid $20 an hour and the long scene took a week to film. My son was thrilled to be in the movie.
When the movie premiered in New York, Noah asked Roger if he wanted to attend a special screening. My brother turned down this invitation. Why I'm not sure. I have not spoken to Noah since the film came out.
My mother asked me if I liked the film and how I felt about my name and select details of my life being used. I told her, “As long as the movie is first-rate, I don’t object. I don’t want to be associated with a mediocre film. This is a first-rate movie.” My reaction made its way back to Noah, probably via Pat, and I heard that Noah liked my response.
In American culture, Hollywood movies often become bigger than real-life. While Greenberg resembles an indie film more than a Hollywood film -- indie in content and sensibility, but Hollywood in its casting – its impact on my life has been curiously substantial. I have been treated differently by friends, lovers, and work peers because of the film. Now, I rarely discuss the film with people, but word of mouth gets around and, when I do discuss it, there often is that cliché of a reaction – “wow, you were in the movies…you are a star…are you more like the Ben Stiller or Rhys Ifans character?...wow, someone made a movie about you.”
In real-life, I earned a doctorate in American history, taught college for a decade, and recently wrote two nonfiction books on civil liberties in America. Among my professor-type work peers, I have tried to hide any association with the film. High-minded scholars probably would frown on such a film, and misunderstand me, since no character in Greenberg is an intellectual. Greenberg is not a film about, or for, intellectuals, although it is a very smart movie. Noah already addressed in a critical way the intellectual world of writers and professors in The Squid and the Whale, which in large measure is a critique of his parents. However, among my friends I have mentioned Greenberg and was interested in their reaction to the film. I heard diverse responses. Some friends liked the film and could not believe the movie explored the relationship between my brother and me. Again, it is the Hollywood syndrome. “Wow, you are mentioned in a movie – how cool is that.” Some friends were competitive or jealous and voiced negative reactions. They did not like the film and wondered if I was angry that Noah had depicted Stiller as a former “mental patient.” Another common reaction was for people to notice that my personality in real-life was a little bit of both Stiller and Ifans in the film – how could it be both? I would explain these are composite characters and if someone asked Noah about them, he probably would deny they resembled either me or Roger in real-life. There have been times when I acted in some way and a person says -- “Yeah, that is exactly what Stiller would have done.” People compare me to the fictional creation. They seem to see me as closer to the Stiller character because of Stiller’s practice of writing angry complaint letters and his anti-corporate attitude.
Noah's focus on my relationship with my brother rings true in some ways. For many years we were close – Roger and I used to drink together, go to Knicks basketball games together, and socialize at times with the same people. That was when we were much younger. Today, Roger and I have had a serious falling out – in much the same way the fictional characters have a falling out at the end of the movie. But, my break with Roger came after the movie and was unrelated to it. The tension between us got so bad that at one point that Roger even told his two young children that I had died. What an extreme response. When I told a close friend what Roger had done -- and said that I had passed -- she commented, “Oh, that is what Ben Stiller would have done.” I laughed.