Greenberg (2010) dir. Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mark Duplass, Chris Messina
By Alan Bacchus
Well, I didn’t completely hate the film, which doesn’t exactly make for a quotable recommendation, but after suffering through two thirds of another dreadfully navel gazing idiosyncratic Baumbach comedy/drama, the final act surprisingly moved me from the category of detest to a slight acknowledge of admiration.
There’s no doubt we’re in the internalized emotional world of Noah Baumbach, who makes updated Gen X slacker movies for intellectual hipsters (ie. Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding). This time round he crafts a study of his title character Roger Greenberg (Stiller) who has been released from the hospital for a nervous breakdown (and possibly a suicide attempt). What’s eating Greenberg you ask? He’s forty, with a once promising music career, but now finds himself as a failed artist with a failed relationship who can only make a living as a carpenter. When he arrives in Los Angeles to housesit his brother’s luxurious home in the Hills and their sick German shepherd dog, it becomes the opportunity to reconcile his anxieties with the help of his brother’s flighty assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig).
While we can all relate to some of the career and relationship anxieties in Greenberg’s life Baumbach injects his character with such a self-loathing misplaced by an annoying self-absorption he becomes so unlikeable and unpleasant. Alexander Payne’s Sideways makes for a good comparison. Like Greenberg Paul Giamatti’s Miles suffers from the same ailments but has the ability to turn off his depression to correlate like a regular person. Greenberg wears his self hatred like a badge on his down-filled vest.
Greta Gerwig a veteran of those formerly-labelled mumblecore films is delightful as Florence, a striking beauty demurely hidden behind a dressed down appearance and her character's insecurity issues. Though why she is attracted to Greenberg in the first place is a fabrication too far-reaching for us to understand. It’s the same annoyance I get when Woody Allen casts likes of Winona Ryder or even Diane Keaton or Mariel Hemingway as his romantic co-stars. Manhattan, this is not.
This indulgence of Baumbach’s is the most difficult to hurdle. While Miles in Sideways, could be oddly charming and self-effacing in an attractive way, Greenberg is an annoying shit from beginning to end, causing us to wonder why he was released from the hospital in the first place. The two hook up on their second encounter, and with little small talk or flirting Greenberg kisses Florence and then moves to heavy-petting and oral sex in a matter of seconds. The Florences of this world do not take their panties off for grossly underweight released-released mental rehab patients.
Baumbach’s dialogue and Harris Savides’s observant and unobtrusive cinematography create the same kind of naturalism as in Squid and Margot. Unfortunately the naturalism of tone doesn’t match the ridiculous progression of Greenberg’s relationship with Florence.
As mentioned, the film finally hits its gear in the third act during a rambunctious party of 20 year olds his niece holds at the house. Greenberg is offered and partakes in some lines of coke and turns into a twitchy party monster. Stiller also comes alive believably exaggerating his character’s personality ticks to great effect. As Greenberg bounces about the party and tries to fit in with kids half his age, we finally get to see him in his former glory and why his fall from grace could have caused such severe depression.
And in the end, his dramatic confession to both himself and Florence is cleverly set up and executed. But is it all worth it to be pummelled with pretentious and overly indulgent characters we despise in order to find the heart of the film at the end. I’d say, a reluctant yes.
"Greenberg" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada