After seeing A Serious Man, a few months back, I had the idea to start tracking whether shlemiels were returning to film and fiction. Two weeks ago, Tablet Magazine ran a short piece by Marissa Brostoff arguing that Baumbach's Greenberg and Sam Lipsyte's new novel, The Ask, "breathe new life into the figure of the shlemiel".
Is Ben Stiller's character in Greenberg a shlemiel? What does a shlemiel look like in contemporary film (as opposed to the shlemiels of Yiddish literature and in the writings of Bellow, Roth, Malamud)? Why would be seeing a return to the shlemiel now? (A question that Brostoff doesn't answer.)
It's arguable whether Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brother's film "A Serious Man" is a shlemiel.
In mid-February, I asked Ruth Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, and author (among other books) of The Shlemiel as Modern Hero (1976), about whether Gopnik is a shlemiel. Wisse wrote in an email, "The schlemiel character that interested me was the "loser-as-winner:" he is a figure of comedy, who nonetheless persuades us of his staying powers, and of his moral authority. There is profound irony involved. The very sorrowful protagonist of the Coen Brothers' movie is too beaten to fit my model. The Judd Apatow character does seem the type, though he is merely a little shlobby, not really a loser, not like Gimpel, or Herzog, or the other characters I describe. No doubt the Jewish type has influenced American humor, but the schlemiel was born of real failure--failure as a man."
Baumbach's film Greenberg, like his earlier film Squid and the Whale, is about male anxiety about becoming a man. Oddly, I noticed that the father-son relationship, so central to a boy forming an identity as a man, and at the heart of the story of Squid and the Whale, is absent from Greenberg. Greenberg's father is not shown or mentioned in the film. The two Greenberg brothers do mention their mother, that she has recently died, and Greenberg, in his honest, emotional voice mail that he leaves for Florence, says that he misses her.
For Greenberg to be a shlemiel, he must be a "loser-as-winner", as Wisse put it, not simply a fool. And in the end, we see that he is a loser-as-winner: he gets the beautiful girl.
Baumbach seems to be obviously referencing Bellow's Herzog, in calling his movie by the character's last name, and having Greenberg, like Herzog, constantly writing letters of complaint. Greenberg is a shlemiel in the same way that Herzog is. Both have over-excited, over-active minds; they are brimming over with verbosity and shrewd observations. They see too much; they feel too much, so they seem crazy, and yet in their strangeness, they reach insights. There is a great scene in Greenberg at a children's birthday party where Ben Stiller comments that the fathers are dressed like children and the children are dressed like super heroes. He is constantly analyzing those around him and finding them unworthy. In one scene after dissecting the behavior of those at a nearby table with witty darts, he says, "I'm strangely on tonight." And yet he is too "on," all the time. Similarly, the novel Herzog starts out, ". . .though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong. He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun."