We happened to watch Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg a week or two after Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (which I’d seen years ago and barely remembered) and it was clear to me that Baumbach was drawing pretty heavily on Ashby’s film. Shampoo is great — it felt to me like a cross between a more typical Hollywood studio film of the period (although is there such a thing actually?) and something by Cassavetes in its fluid, meandering, non-teleological and semi-improvised-feeling style. One of my favorite scenes: Warren Beatty’s character George is turned down for a loan for a new hair salon at the bank; he storms out, tears off his jacket and tie, tosses them in the garbage can, then kicks it over. As he stalks off, a single bottle fortuitously rolls towards the camera — it’s really lovely.
That scene is where Beatty is at his most Greenberg-like. That’s not really where the strong parallels are. Needless to say Ben Stiller and Beatty don’t have a lot in common, it’s more the larger structure of the films and the representation of L.A. Some “rhyming” elements: the punctuated scenes of characters walking on paths in the Hollywood Hills, giving a surprisingly bucolic vision of the city; the stumbling-upon of the sexy daughter character who’s popped up in the parents’ mansion (this is a great pre-Star Wars Carrie Fisher in Shampoo; after a couple minutes of hostile exchanges with Beatty, she abruptly asks “wanna fuck?” Beatty’s George reminded me a little of Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep in the way almost literally every women he meets comes on to him; maybe Bogart is the secret connecting link between Beatty’s pulchritude and Stiller’s slightly simean charismatic ugliness?); and most obviously, the sprawling youth/hipster party towards the conclusion of both films. Here Greenberg is in the Lester role from Shampoo, the out-of-place member of an older generation slumming it among the nubile youth-culture student-types for whom L.A. is their playpen. My crowning piece of evidence, pun intended, is a tiny detail: early on, Ben Stiller is sitting on his friend’s couch when he aimlessly picks up a scissors and snips off a piece of his own hair. It may appear to be just another random act of passive-aggression, but to those in know, it’s a loving homage.