(2010) dir. Noah Baumbach
viewed: 03/26/10 at CineArts at the Empire Theater, SF, CA
Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest film is a step up from his last film, Margot at the Wedding (2007), but it’s also not quite as fulfilling as his best film, The Squid and the Whale (2005). And actually, Baumbach has struck a great partnership with Wes Anderson on some of Anderson’s best films including Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), which I think has led to the best films between the two of them. But ranking a film against others is not such a useful strategy.
Greenberg stars Ben Stiller, who I don’t always care for, in a role of the more “serious” and “actorly” than his broad comedies. He is Greenberg, a 41 year old man who, following a nervous breakdown, comes to live in his brother’s house in LA while they are on vacation in Vietnam. He’s a man “stuck” in himself, narcissitic, angry, bitter, and yet maybe an okay guy. Stiller is quite good in the role, giving the character only the most modicum amount of charm. He’s not easy to like.
Opposite Stiller is the polar opposite, Greta Gerwig (who I started liking from Baghead (2008) and The House of the Devil (2009)). In many ways, she’s almost as critical to the story as Greenberg. The film opens with her, after having walked a dog, her face fills the screen, looking to the right while she drives across Los Angeles. She is the full picture and the background is zipping past her. She has direction? But she has a natural human loveliness of a girl that you met at a party and probably dreampt of all night. She’s a beautiful girl, but a regular, real person, both physically and in her character’s demeanor.
She is Florence, Greenberg’s brother’s hired assistant, running errands, walking the dog, buying groceries. And at 25, she’s a bit of a score for Greenberg, but he can’t hardly see that. His issues, agoraphobia, self-loathing, misanthropy make him utterly self-involved. It’s actually amazing that she likes him. But her character has what his character utterly lacks, self-awareness of a sort and sensitivity to others.
Actually, her life is perhaps also a bit unsettled. Having just ended a long-term relationship, her entire life is being a part of a family of which she is not family. She is notably not invited on the vacation, but she does everything for them. And her small apartment, small life, at 25, has yet to come to crisis about such a situation. Her sensitivity and kindness will probably allow things to work out for her.
Greenberg, though, is stuck somewhere within himself, not really living in the past, but certainly not in the present. He hides in the house from the neighbors, and when he digs up his old friends from a band he was in as a younger person, he manages to alienate everyone across the board. The one creature that he seems to develop a caring for is his brother’s ailing German shepherd. He’s living in the family house, but not within the family.
It takes pretty much the entire film for Greenberg to wake up at all. And, if anything, the film’s wry humor bursts onto screen perhaps a little too infrequently. It’s a detailed and dedicated study of a man, perhaps an age?, are we all a little Greenbergian? But it’s kind of harsh and unlikeable. In Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach made Margot such a bitch that her redemption at the end seemed a little too late and a little too trying. In Greenberg there is more balance to the equation, but it’s still not a very happy film.
Gerwig is lovely. She’s come up through the mumblecore movement and smaller independent films and this film will no doubt open doors for her. Baumbach’s camera gives her the full breadth of the screen, and she is a tender, belieavable young California girl.
For Baumbach, it’s another good film. But I have to say that I prefer the stuff that he works on with Wes Anderson. Some mixture of the two of them bring out something much more lively, cheering, and significant. Still, it’s interesting stuff.