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The Evolution of the Jewish Asshole

Morris Dickstein on ‘Greenberg’

Ari M. Brostoff
May 13, 2010
Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg.(often-elided)
Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg.(often-elided)

National Write-About-Greenberg-Two-Months-After-It-Came-Out Week continues with a Dissent piece by cultural critic Morris Dickstein. Despite its tardiness, it makes an interesting point that builds on what I had to say about the film (two months ago).

“Roger Greenberg’s only rival at saying gauche or obnoxious things to anyone in almost any situation is the character played by Larry David in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Dickstein, the great literary critic, writes of Ben Stiller’s title character. “But while Curb Your Enthusiasm’s once refreshing dose of bile and misanthropy has now degenerated into predictable formula, Greenberg, on the other hand, is guaranteed to set one’s teeth on edge.” It’s important to understand the evolution that resulted in Roger Greenberg.

Dickstein goes on to place the film within the genres of screwball comedy (for the antagonistic romance at its center) and Woody Allen’s brand of “neurotic Jewish comedy.” Those elements are clearly there, but the comparison with Curb Your Enthusiasm is sharpest, and points to a key difference between Woody Allen’s and Larry David’s often-elided comic personas.

The easiest way to explain it is to look at the two comics’ relationships with Los Angeles (where Greenberg takes place as well). When Alvy Singer, Allen’s Annie Hall alter ego, derides L.A. (“the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light”), it’s because he genuinely doesn’t fit in there: Alvy is a nervous arriviste from old Brooklyn whose contempt for Hollywood glamour is rooted in the real fear that he’s about to get chucked out of the party. But David’s character—significantly, a generation younger—lives in L.A. Yes, part of the shtick is that he’s too much of a New Yorker to be able to stand the constant sunshine, but he also cocoons himself in the pampered Hollywood bubble that Allen can’t even handle. David would be roughly as successful at riding the subway as Alvy is at driving a car.

Roger Greenberg, yet another generation younger, is yet another step removed from Alvy’s cultural and class-based anxieties. Greenberg is a born Hollywood insider who’s become an outsider only because he’s a jerk (a troubled one whom we feel sorry for, but basically, a jerk). By the time you get to Greenberg, the thread of distinctively Jewish paranoia that keeps David’s character from being just a rich asshole is lost.

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Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.