Sunday, March 20, 2011

Glumming it With "Greenberg"

Roger Greenberg, the titular hero of Noah Baumbach's newest film, is one of the most unlikeable characters I've ever had the displeasure of watching in a movie. A graying, forty-year-old New Yorker who can't seem to let go of the 80s, who is automatically critical of everyone around him yet unable to take responsibility for anything, Greenberg frequently exasperates those closest to him. Perhaps we should make allowances based on the fact that he has just been released from a mental hospital, and is recuperating at his brother's home in Los Angeles while the family is away on vacation. Left to his own devices, he tries to reconnect with old friends Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Beller (Mark Duplass), who he wronged fifteen years ago. He also finds himself repeatedly calling up his brother's personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), one of the only people who he hasn't managed to make a bad impression on.

"Greenberg" is a decent character study of sad, lonely man forced to confront his own failings and failures, and the fact that he's getting older. However, it's not particularly engaging. Ben Stiller tries his best, but he tends to play variations on the same screen persona in all his films, and I was was never quite convinced that he was Roger Greenberg rather than simply an older, depressed Ben Stiller. Since Stiller is one of the poster-children of Gen-X, I suppose his presence lends some cultural cachet to the story, but that impact is limited. The character just isn't very well realized. We learn that Greenberg had some sort of mental breakdown, but there are few signs of this onscreen. Rather, he comes across as an immature poseur, who deals with social situations by trying to appear smarter, cooler, and more relevant than he is, and childishly lashes out whenever someone calls him on the act. He also has a lot affected quirks, like refusing to drive, writing self-righteous letters of complaint, and making dated pop-culture references, which are really unnecessary and at times counterproductive. It's only at the very end, when he is confronted with being on the wrong side of the generational divide, that we get any sense of the extent of Greenberg's damage.

Far more interesting is Greta Gerwig's performance as Florence, a young woman in her twenties who is not naive, but is perhaps too inexperienced to see past the facade that Greenberg maintains. Initially, she romanticizes his flaws. When he declares that his goal is to do "nothing," she cheers him on his new endeavor, not realizing that "nothing" is probably exactly what Greenberg has been doing for the last fifteen years. Gerwig lends a wonderful warmth and emotional transparency to character. You can almost tell exactly what she's thinking in many scenes, and how she thinks, which makes later revelations about Florence all the more surprising and effective. Like Greenberg she's also going through a rough period, but is much more resilient than he is, and better at hiding her personal problems. The film is as much hers as it is Greenberg's, fortunately, and Gerwig had me invested in the story long before Ben Stiller appears onscreen.

I've liked some of Noah Baumbach's other films with similar characters, especially "The Squid and the Whale," but I found "Greenberg" a much more difficult watch. A lot of it was predictable and tedious, and the character of Greenberg was grating to the point where it strained believability. The visual style is emphatically indie, but otherwise not very distinctive. The portrayal of this particular cultural subset of Angelenos felt right, though as with most films set in LA, I have to ask where all the minorities disappeared to. But to Baumbach's credit, there was good dialogue throughout that kept the movie going, and the ending was very strong. Also, I think "Greenberg" makes for a nice counterpoint to the nostalgia obsessed mainstream media that seems intent on resurrecting the 80s whether we like it or not. In fact, if I think of Roger Greenberg as the embodiment of the collective regressive impulses of the current batch of Hollywood studio executives, the film becomes far more interesting.

Ultimately, "Greenberg" was a good attempt by Ben Stiller to return to more serious material, which I appreciate, and I hope he keeps taking projects like this. And now I'm going to have to see that damn "Arthur" remake, because Greta Gerwig is playing the love interest (not that you cold tell from the misleading marketing), and she's certainly proved she's worth braving Russell Brand to see.

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