Friday, March 26, 2010

Greenberg: Less Than Meets the Eye

Noam Baumbach’s Greenberg is, unlike his other features, a movie where, ultimately, there’s much less than meets the eye. Of all the directors toiling in the American independent movie scene, Baumbach, with movies like Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy and The Squid and the Whale, has managed to be one of the savviest and most entertaining of filmmakers. He eschews the heavy handedness of self-conscious movies like Lance Hammer’s Ballast and Lee Daniels’ Precious, while opening a window on characters who warrant the attention. Baumbach's protagonists also have little in common with the mopey whiners in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, or any of the caricatured, grotesque folk at the centre of the films of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness). Greenberg, however, will likely test the patience of even Baumbach’s staunchest fans.

The title character Roger (Ben Stiller) is, at age 40, a carpenter and ex - songwriter who is recovering from a nervous breakdown which saw him institutionalized. Asked by his successful hotelier brother Phillip (Chris Messina) to watch his L.A. home for six weeks while he takes his family to Vietnam on a business trip, the New York-based Greenberg returns to the place where he grew up, minus a driver’s license or a need to do anything with his life. There he crosses paths with an old buddy (Rhys Ifans), an ex–girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who conceived the movie’s story and is married to Baumbach) and, most notably, his brother's pretty young personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who, at 25, is more grounded than he is but has emotional issues of her own.

Florence is actually the first person we see in the film, listening to the radio while she drives to work. But, alas, she is not the central figure of the movie. That honour goes to Greenberg, an angry, troubled personality who wears out his welcome pretty early on with most everyone whose paths he crosses - and finally with the audience, as well. Stiller gets credit for going against the grain of the usually likeable persona he’s proffered in movies such as There’s Something About Mary and Meet the Parents. In those films, you root for him to overcome the many obstacles that have been placed in his way. But here he’s been saddled with a thinly written, obvious protagonist who’s more of a collection of tics and mannerisms than a fully fleshed out human being. Mostly Greenberg stares off into space while occasionally rousing himself to write angry letters to the Mayor of New York, Starbucks and other institutions and individuals who have cheesed him off about one thing or another. When he meets Florence, whom he is attracted to, the movie gives him the opportunity to double up on the angry tirades and act like an asshole. There’s nothing wrong with portraying such a person, of course, but the trick is to be interesting while doing so - and Greenberg isn’t interesting at all.

At first I thought this might be a reflection of Stiller’s possible limited range as an actor, much like Jack Black's one note performance in Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach's last film, but he is actually very good in a couple of scenes in the movie. For example, in the encounter he has with Beth, his ex (a very poorly written part for Leigh); the look of longing he reveals when she is not looking at him is painful to behold, even if he's fooling himself about the love he thinks he still has for her. Stiller is also effective and quite compelling in another scene where, under the influence of cocaine (and Zoloft), Greenberg initially lambastes an uncomprehending group of twentysomethings before admitting that he envies their freedom to make something of their lives (he pretty much screwed up a chance for musical stardom at their age.

Those scenes reveal the unrealized possibility of Greenberg’s being a movie with something deep and penetrating to say, while also containing some laughs. Greenberg is a relatively lighter change of pace after Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach’s very sobering look at the dysfunctional relationship between two sisters and a film that courageously exposed people at their very worst (The Squid and the Whale did that as well). I remember thinking after Margot 'I sure hope Baumbach lightens up a bit with his next film, because I don’t think I can handle another of his scathingly truthful pictures.' However, I didn’t expect that his follow-up movie would actually err in the other direction and be content to skate on the surface in terms of its narrative and point of view.

The film is even sloppy in its details, most notably concerning Mahler, the family dog who is Greenberg’s responsibility, too. Since the film makes very clear that Phillip doesn't really trust his brother not to screw up the simple assignment of house sitting, why does he allow him to take care of the dog instead of just making sure Florence takes that job off Roger’s hands - something she does anyway the rest of the time? The set up makes virtually all the meetings between Florence and Greenberg contrived ones, since he has to continually call her up to drive him places when Mahler gets sick. It would have made more sense to simply have Florence interact with Greenberg when she came over to walk or feed Mahler and allow their relationship to develop organically from there. The movie also never makes believable the so-called friendship between Greenberg and Ivan. Ivan is a British ex–pat, and Greenberg’s former band mate, who inexplicably puts up with Greenberg’s verbal abuse even though his own life has been damaged by Greenberg’s rejection of a record label contract that could have seen the band hit the big time (it doesn’t help that Ifans is so dull in the thankless role). Even the observations Greenberg makes about the differences between New York and L.A., mostly revolving round the latter’s residents not being as quick to honk their car horns, are flat, particularly when compared to the scintillating comedic scenes in Annie Hall, when Woody Allen’s diehard New Yorker visited Hollywood.

The one positive, fresh aspect of Greenberg is Greta Gerwig’s fine performance as Florence. She seems bland and affectless early on in the movie, but as we see more of her, a dramatically acute, rounded portrait of her emerges. She's a lost soul who hasn’t given up on life or love, despite a fairly unchallenging job and a putative boyfriend (Greenberg) who treats her like shit most of the time. Florence is aware of her limitations, and of his, and also of the feelings he unknowingly harbours for her. It’s a remarkably generous portrait of someone from her generation since it comes from a director who is the same age as Greenberg (though I think Gerwig deserves more of the credit for bringing Florence to such indelible life on screen). What I’m left wondering is why did Leigh, who conceived the film and Baumbach, who wrote it, decide that Greenberg was the better character to focus on in the movie? He clearly isn’t. Baumbach would have been better off making a movie called Florence, given Gerwig a bigger part and relegated Stiller/Greenberg to the background. Then I could have praised a worthy film instead of dismissing the largely glib and empty one he has offered us instead.

--Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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