A film review by Craig J. Koban May 17, 2010
2010, R, 107 mins.
2010, R, 107 mins.
Roger Greenberg: Ben Stiller / Florence: Greta Gerwig / Ivan: Rhys
Ifans / Beth: Jennifer Jason / Leigh / Sara: Brie Larson / Eric:
Writer/director Noah Baumbach
is, if anything, one of the shrewdest observational dramatists
working in contemporary films. What
he does is not easy: he is able to effortlessly blend powerfully (and
oftentimes brutally) honest dramatic sentiment and dark comedic
laughs with a delicate, understated pathos.
He creates utterly convincing portraits of everyday people
suffering from long and protracted tumbles into emotional abysses, but he
also does so with a curious warmth and objective understanding.
Most crucially, he asks viewers not to like his characters, but to try to
see things through their warped prerogatives.
If you doubt his skills just look at his 2005 Oscar nominated THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (one of my Ten Best Films of that year) which was a semi-autobiographical dramedy about his childhood in Brooklyn and the effect of his parent’s divorce in the 1980’s (Baumbach's parents are novelist/film critic Jonathon Baumbach and Village Voice critic Georgia Brown). Then came 2007’s MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, a lesser film to SQUID, but almost its equal when it came to having a documentarian feel for the foibles and flaws of its personas. Both of those films revel in Baumbach’s keen focus on going completely against audience expectations for the underling material: the way he uncompromisingly portrays his characters keeps viewers off balance, which makes his films so intoxicating.
comes GREENBERG, which is another Baumbach small scale, character study
masterpiece of middle class unease and overall discomfort.
Some filmmakers like to focus on the emotional microcosms of their
deeply flawed characters, but Baumbach has a borderline fetishistic
obsession with picking apart his personas when they are at their most
grounded and vulnerable. The
central title character, Robert Greenberg (played in a pitch-perfectly
under cranked and disciplined performance by Ben Stiller) is a man in his
early 40’s that is a cantankerous asshole mostly because…well…he
perhaps does not know how
else to behave.
He’s single, monstrously
anti-social, intrinsically unlikable to his core, and spends most of the
film in an excruciatingly ego-driven freefall.
He is infatuated with the gripes that he fanatically believes the
entire world around him has against him, even when they don’t appear
very readily. Part of the
brilliance of GREENBERG is that Baumbach and Stiller so swiftly (a) make
us detest this arrogant and self-centered man and (b) make us
eventually foster a modest level of understanding for what makes him tick.
The writing, direction, and empowered performance don’t
soft-pedal the character for easy payoffs; instead, they all work in
tandem in an effort to make us understand him without directly liking him. The film, true to Baumbach’s playbook, never once cleanses
Greenberg for the sake of more easily inspiring our sympathy for him.
Much like the character himself, we struggle alongside him.
Instead of focusing on the
upper class and affluent Manhattan environment of THE SQUID AND THE WHALE,
Baumbach opts here to place the film in Los Angeles, a location that,
according to Greenberg, has people that behave in ways that never cease to
anger and frustrate him. After
being hospitalized in a psyche ward for reasons never specified (the film
tantalizes us with filling in the blanks), Greenberg finds himself
jobless, homeless, and without much of a future.
Years before when he was in his twenties he was an aspiring
musician with an old buddy, Ivan (Rhys Ifans, hitting every comic and
dramatic beat with textbook precision), that is until Greenberg – with a
the-entire-world-is-out-to-screw-him attitude of vanity gone amok
– made a stupid and naïve decision to call off a proposed record deal
that could have set his band up for life. Just about everyone around Greenberg believes that he ruined
their musical pursuits, but he doesn’t.
Fed up with life in the
present, but without much in the ways of goals to propel himself forward,
Greenberg decides to do “nothing for awhile” while he house-sits for
his rich brother in the City of Angels.
The brother hopes that Greenberg will look after the house, the
dog, and maybe build a house for the animal (he sometimes dabbles in
carpentry when he is not writing scathing letters of spite to corporations
for doing…well…everything wrong while servicing his needs).
When not wallowing away in a pool of his own self-pity, Greenberg
does try to reacquaint himself with Ivan, whom is going through a nasty
divorce with his wife, and an estranged old girlfriend named Bath
(Jennifer Jason Leigh, wife to Baumbach and co-credited with the film’s
Greenberg then has a chance
encounter with his brother’s personal family assistant, Florence (Greta
Gerwig, in a breakout performance if there ever was one), who decides to
drop by the house to see if the dog and home are okay and to see if
Greenberg is in need of anything. Typical of Baumbach’s willingness to never, ever
play things predictably, Greenberg and Florence have sort of an anti-meet-cute:
they don’t seem to have any spark or romantic feelings towards one
another, but they seem to be mutually interested in the other.
The two begin to see more of
each other, but there never seems to be much of a sexual attraction
between the pair…. just curiosity as to what makes each other
tick. Greenberg is so
lovesick with his own misery that he finds it next-to-impossible to
discover romantic feelings for Florence.
She is almost equally complicated as a possible love interest:
During one of the film’s most razor sharp and funny sequences, the pair
begin to have intercourse in one of the most awkward sex scenes in long
time. He seems oddly detached
from his duties to please her while she seems equally distracted by noises
outside the apartment. When
they stop she reveals to him that she does not want another boyfriend
because she just broke up with someone: “I don’t want to go from just
having sex to sex to sex.” The
hilariously paranoid Greenberg asks, “Who’s the third sex?”
I don’t wish to spoil more
of what happens to their very peculiar relationship, other than to say
that Baumbach’s fly-on-the wall spontaneity with the camera and his
meticulous knack for capture the idiosyncrasies of everyday conversation
is what makes Greenberg and Florence one of the more intriguing on-screen
couples in a while. What’s
amazing is how the film lures you in even when the title character appears
to have no redeeming qualities. The
relationship between Greenberg and Florence is more like one of two
hopelessly lost souls than it is one of traditional love-conquers-all
sentiment. Their initial
hook-ups are failures, then they decide to leave each other alone, only to
hook back up again and the cycle repeats itself.
The more the film progresses the more it appears that these two
people maybe don’t belong together.
Florence is so sunny in disposition, disarming, and plucky that you
kind of want to slap some sense into her for wanting to be with a vile
jerk that finds himself complaining more about how she takes him away from
his own bottomless apathy. A
more traditional approach for a romcom would be to see that pair
overcoming their respective differences to simplistically love each other,
but under Baumbach’s bleak microscope, the lives of his characters are
not so black and white.
That is not to say that
Florence is perfectly well adjusted either: she wants to have a life of
fulfillment and happiness, even though her current lifestyle and lack of
ambition seem to hold her back. She
seems limitlessly confident, yet paradoxically unsure of herself at the
same time. The performance by Greta Gerwig – a star in the making –
is one of 2010’s most naturalistic and nuanced: what’s so compelling
about the actress is that she does not possess movie star glamour, but she
is nonetheless sneakily beautiful if you look close enough.
She is also a finely skilled actress for shedding away any pretence
of method or gimmicks in perfectly capturing a 25-year-old woman at her
most enthusiastic and troubled. There
is not one false note made by Gerwig here.
Perhaps most amazing is
Stiller’s shocking transformation into Greenberg, where the actor’s
usual comedic shtick (albeit rousingly funny in other Hollywood comedies)
is totally discarded in place of him completely committing himself to
playing a totally unsettled, unnerving, and fixatedly angry human being.
Baumbach has a past of taken unhinged comic performers and carving
out nicely understated performances from them that traverse between
tragedy and laughs (see Jake Black in MARGOT AT THE MUSEUM) and he does
much of the same with Stiller here. Credit,
though, needs to go the actor for the way he never reduces Greenberg to a
one-note caricature nor does he make him an overly crude symbol of
condemnation. Stiller makes Greenberg one of his memorable creations
because he makes the character an open vessel to the audience: he’s an
insufferable SOB, an intellectual elitist, and a mentally sick man and the
performance and script never sugarcoats him in ways you would expect.
Two scenes in particular are
small masterpieces and show why Stiller definitively should be a
front-runner for Oscar gold: In
one protracted and painful-to-watch moment we see the pathetic Greenberg
try to re-establish a bond with his ex-girlfriend that has long since went
on to better things (Baumbach slowly builds the scene until Greenberg’s
feeble attempts at wooing her becomes squirm-inducing).
The second scene – a maniacal comic classic – shows a drunken,
coked-up Greenberg at a house party filled with teens and young twenty-somethings
where he unleashes a self-aggrandizing monologue about how their
generation confounds him. Stiller
has never been as eerily convincing.
People often ask me why I am
so enamored by films about wholeheartedly crummy people.
Fascinatingly, GREENBERG never panders down to its crummy character
by trying to find ways to force us to like him.
The film wants us to witness and observe the character’s highs
and lows through his own twisted social vacuum.
As a result, GREENBERG is an enthrallingly welcoming film
about a most unwelcome character, and it sort of sucker punches you
out of the doldrums of witless formulas and mechanical story contrivances
that seem to hover over other archaic and lackluster dramedies.
Once again, Baumbach shows that he is a filmmaker that likes to
spit on mechanical movie conventions and he never pulls dramatic punches
while doing so to placate audiences.