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When personal lives complicate movie-watching

John DeFore

To judge from the cover of the new "Greenberg" DVD, on which a modestly smiling Ben Stiller appears to charm Greta Gerwig with some offhanded joke, you'd think this is just another quirky rom-com, full of unthreatening good vibes.

The design might convince a lot of Stiller fans to rent Noah Baumbach's film. But judging from the "Greenberg" conversations I've heard, a lot of those fans will feel burned by a movie whose hero is deliberately prickly — a self-centered, obsessive mess of a man who could probably only be loved by a mother, a woman with serious self-esteem issues or moviegoers who see a shred (hopefully no more) of themselves within him.

The movie's theatrical poster — in which a scruffy Stiller looks up at an oppressive comic-strip-style thought balloon — was a more honest advertisement, hinting that viewers were in for two hours with a guy trapped inside his own head.

Truth in advertising aside, the movie prompts that always-relevant question: Do you have to like a movie's characters personally in order to enjoy watching it? Many moviegoers say yes, and I feel sorry for them whenever something like "Greenberg" (one of my favorites this year) comes around.

An intelligently made film that dares to offer an unlikeable protagonist, and manages to depict him with honesty and wit, is a rarity worth celebrating — a welcome break from the wish-fulfillment and cheap thrills movies usually offer, and a reminder that we are surrounded in this world by people we disagree with, many of whom deserve our understanding. Plus, "Greenberg" made me laugh a lot, and that never hurts.

Related to the "Greenberg" question is another: Once you've discovered that an artist is himself unlovable, are you required to disavow your enjoyment of his work?

In some instances, the two are difficult to untangle: Once you've heard the panting, ranting evidence of mental illness on those Mel Gibson phone tapes, it's almost impossible to see the bloodlust in the films he has directed without fretting about his personal demons. Gibson has a compelling artistic voice behind the camera, but critics who assailed the gore in "Apocalypto" and "The Passion of the Christ" look more justified every day.

Even Gibson's choice of acting projects, like Warner's recently released "Edge of Darkness," embraces violent, obsessed characters. When we allow ourselves to identify with these revenge-bent men, are we morally tainted?

In other cases, the distance is greater. Whatever your opinion of Woody Allen's offscreen love life, much of his work has little to do with it. Take his decades-long career as a comic essayist, which has just been put out in a quartet of Allen-narrated recordings by Audible. You might disapprove of Allen's something-like-incest so much you refuse to give him your audiobook dollars, but that doesn't mean enjoying Allen's geek-goofy riffs on existentialism and Dostoyevsky would make you a dirty old man.

Things get thornier when it comes to the many Allen films in which he woos ladies half his age. For my part, though, Allen's crimes would have to get a lot more repellent to quash my enjoyment of "Manhattan."

Then there's Roman Polanski, whose case is irresistibly complex. Polanski did at least one repugnant thing back in the '70s, and it's a shame that California courts botched his case so badly that it lingers unresolved. But Polanski's movies, like "The Ghost Writer" (released on disc next Tuesday by Summit), mine the themes in his biography — not only guilt vs. innocence and secrets vs. exposure, but the harrowing tale of survival in "The Pianist" — in such a rich, provocative way that I would never allow anyone to persuade me to stop watching them as a gesture of protest against his sins.

Sometimes, after all, we are enriched by listening to what unpleasant people have to say — whether they're real-life hedonists run amok or malcontents drawn from Noah Baumbach's imagination.