Sunday, March 28, 2010

Greenberg (***1/2)

Directed by Noah Baumbach


Noah Baumbach seems to have a soft spot for insufferable assholes. In an effort to expose the darkest, more honest aspects of the human condition, Baumbach exposes his viewers to pretty grotesque psychological images. In his 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale, this is executed impeccably; but in his 2007 film Margot at the Wedding, it was turned up to a level so high that the movie itself became unbearable. His latest film, Greenberg, does not ease up, but does have a more centralized storyline and it works in one of the year's more interesting films.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is forty years old and he is perpetually unhappy with his life. He's a carpenter in New York, but he has decided to travel to Los Angeles to housesit and watch the dog of his brother Phillip (Chris Messina), who is traveling to Vietnam with his family. Roger promises to build a doghouse before they return, but he only works on it intermittently. When he gets to the house, everything feels foreign to him and his anxiety begins to rise. The neighbors come over and use the pool whenever they please and that doesn't sit right with him.

He is told to call Florence (Greta Gerwig), the family's personal assistant, if he needs anything. Not a day goes by before he does. They meet and Roger is instantly drawn toward her, even though their initial meeting comprises of an awkward conversation about the song "It Never Rains in Southern California". Florence tells him that she could do some groceries and he asks her to pick up whiskey and some ice cream sandwiches. Roger also calls his old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), with whom he used to be in a band. Ivan has sobered up these days but is going through a solemn separation with his wife. All Roger can think about is how disappointed he is that his friend has changed.

The more people that Roger meets throughout the film, the more we discover the strength of his social anxiety. A stay within a mental institution is hinted at several times, but never explained. The only concrete fact that we get from his past is that he destroyed his former band when they were on the verge of a record deal. Why? He was afraid of how partnering with corporate America would effect their growth as a group. As people from his past and present continue to confront him, he is forced to confront himself and his elitist, self-loathing behavior. All this, while a relationship between him and Florence begins to grow. But will his overgrown neuroticism get in the way?

It's probably too simplistic to categorize Greenberg as a "mid-life crisis movie", but it certainly isn't broad enough to break away too ferociously. All in all, Roger is not necessarily disenfranchised with middle age. He's dejected because of a very blatant realization: the unique individual that he's tried so hard to become his whole life is real just a nasty curmudgeon. It takes a lot of negative energy to be a "curmudgeon" at the age of forty, but Roger is able to pull it off. All the depression that lingers around him seems to all be in his head, which may be the most depressing thing about it.

I teetered back and forth with my feelings on this movie as I watched it. There are moments that are brilliant and some that felt tedious. Some moments are sharper and funnier than others, and there's a motif of jump cut editing that felt inconsistent and distracting for me. But what really made Greenberg work for me was the film's final act, which made every part that precedes it--even the parts that meandered--feel needed. Sure, there are a handful of heavy-handed symbols/metaphors (including a particularly unsightly one floating in the pool), but Greenberg's best moments far outweighed the unwarranted ones.

And almost all of Greenberg's best moments have to do with Ben Stiller's performance. Stiller is a legitimate movie star, but he has dipped his toe into the auteur pool once or twice. The results have been middling. But in this film, it's safe to say, he may have the finest acting work of his career. Every line and every nuance screamed inner torment and insecurity, and it's done so effortlessly that it makes you wonder why we've never seen this from Stiller before. Particularly in his scenes with Ifans, Stiller shines comedically and dramatically. Which may be why I was turned off from Gerwig, who seemed a bit out of place here. I don't think she was supposed to be as flat as she seemed, and most of my issues with film have to do with how her character disrupts the rhythm. It's as if she realized how physically demanding the role was ten seconds before the camera turned on and decided to keep it all inside. Her character should have been a bit more explicit, and then I wouldn't debate her motivations so much.

I'm sure a lot of people will dislike Greenberg as much as I disliked Margot at the Wedding. It only tells the parts of the story that it wants to and doesn't seem to care a whole lot about what the audience wants. Baumbach is the one telling the story and he's not letting anyone dictate how he tells it. It's obvious with his three films so far, what Baumbach is interested in: the harsh, but fragile lifestyles of the once privileged. I'm not sure anyone in cinema is covering the market better (even for all it's horrendous qualities, the one thing you couldn't call Margot was "not risky"). I don't think Greenberg is quite as good as his brilliant Squid and the Whale, but it shows that he's not afraid to keep making the films that interest him. Even if there is a clunker thrown in once in a while. It takes a lot of guts and stubbornness to hold that track and it's something that I can appreciate.


Emily said...

I really need to see this movie. I need to see Ben Stiller's performance.

James Colon said...

I know it isn't a particularly high hurdle, but this was probably Stiller's best performance.