' ' Cinema Romantico: Greenberg

Monday, March 29, 2010


Midway through the latest film from Noah Baumbach, one of my favorite screenwriters, there is a line of dialogue that is both wonderful and unlike typical Baumbach wonderfulness. Ben Stiller's 40 year old title character is having dinner with his friend and former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans, fantastic) and says: "Aging is weird. I mean, what the f--- is going on?" It's unusual because in a Baumbach movie you expect someone who says "Aging is weird" to then explain this sentiment by making a pithy witticism of some sort and instead Stiller's Roger Greenberg just erupts. But it's still wonderful because, well, it's accurate. I'm not 40, of course, but I am still beginning to feel the effects of the aging process and when yet another weekend has flown by in what feels like 11 minutes and you wake up on Monday morning still as tired as you were Friday morning all you can think is, "What the f--- is going on?"

Baumbach made the brilliant "Kicking and Screaming" which was a movie about people who communicated endlessly because they couldn't communicate. Now here is "Greenberg" which is a film about people who don't really communicate because they can't communicate. Baumbach has never made such a quiet film. Sure, there's still talking and still quite a few droll put-downs and the like, but listen to the people in this movie. They all sound so tired, so exhausted. They look tired and exhausted. Ifans' Ivan has just separated from his wife and every time he turns up, well, he looks like a guy who has just separated from his wife.

Roger Greenberg, after an apparent stint in a mental hospital, has come to live in his brother's mansion while he and his family are away in Vietnam for a couple months. In his early 20's Greenberg's band was set to get a recording contract, which he rejected, for reasons that still wrankle his bandmates, a fact which he still can't seem to understand. Now he is a carpenter, though he claims he is just trying to "do nothing for awhile." He is painfully self absorbed and he always seems shrouded in an invisible security blanket.

Also on hand is his brother's family's personal assitant Florence (Greta Garwig), 25 years old, apparently with "Annie Hall"-esque aspirations to be a singer. Garwig is, shall we say, the Julie Christie of the Mumblecore movement, and her line readings here maintain that origin. The annunciation isn't always clear and her train of thought is rarely concise - or, to say it another way, she kind of talks like a real person. In fact, her breathtaking monologue describing her and her friend acting like people they weren't with two guys they didn't apparently like is the Linklater version of "Annie Hall's" famed narcoleptic uncle/free turkey speech. This is the same speech that angers Greenberg so much he curses her out and storms out of the apartment. Ouch.

Oh, Greenberg, despite his age is the immature male stuck in a cycle which he cannot or refuses to break. It's why he broke up the band, it's why he broke the heart of the woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach's wife, who co-concocted this story) he was seeing at the same time, and it's why he keeps blaming Florence for wanting to date him even though he's the one who instigated this whole awkward courtship between the two in the first place.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the courtship is a strange one. Why does Florence keep seeing Greenberg despite his incessant cruelty? Well, in a line straight from therapy, she says something to a friend about his attitude being his "defense", that kinda hooey, and this apparently intrigues her. It's questionable why she would continue putting up with him. I do think her decidedly sincere personality would work to allow someone like Greenberg to draw closer than he would ever think possible but occasionally this still feels like the one area where Baumbach's writing needs to get more assured - characters need to gravitate to one another because they want to, not because the filmmakers want them to. A few on-the-nose lines here and there can't cover this up. The device of the family dog becoming ill helps in this regard, and in the regard of Greenberg having to man up and prove he can take care of something, to some degree but not quite enough.

Baumbach has always like open endings and in the wake of seeing the film I have read a few reviews that have cited the vague ending to "Greenberg" but I am not entirely convinced of the vagueness. You have to go all the way back to the aforementioned "Kicking and Screaming". Without giving it away I'll say that a choice made by the protagonist of "Kicking and Screaming" is rather identical to a choice made by Greenberg, though in both instances that choice does not pan out. The key, however, is the reason the choice doesn't work out. In the former it is beyond the protagonist's control. In the latter Greenberg makes his own decision. That may come across as a mighty small stepping stone but in the world of these dour, hesitant Baumbach males it could not be any bigger.


Unknown said...

Good review Nick. I've read a lot of negative feedback from this movie, but I am much more on your side. While there were certainly some "devices" and more than once I could "feel what the movie was trying to do", overall I thought it was a great insight into the ennui of 40 somethings who wake up to realize that none of their big dreams are going to come true. Overall I gave it a B/B+ which it seems you agree with.

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