Sunday, April 4, 2010

Film Reviews: "Greenberg" Good Ideas With Little Movement

The opening five minutes of Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" put me in a state of blissful anticipation.  The camera, in the driver's seat of a moving car, is trained on the profile of co-star Greta Gerwig, as if in sweet tribute to a calm and lovely soul. Steve Miller's rollicking 1970's music creates an upbeat mood, introducing a theme of living in the past and eventually letting go of it.  We learn that Gerwig's character, Florence, is the housekeeper and caretaker to the Greenbergs, a family of rich, educated pseudo-intellectuals (their walls are lined with books and they have a German Shepherd named Mahler). The family prepares for a vacation to Vietnam (another '70's allusion), in a wonderfully written and directed scene of haphazard packing and last minute home-and-dog-care instruction. The man's brother, Roger (Ben Stiller), has just been released from a hospital to recover from a nervous breakdown, and will stay at the house while the family is away.

So we have the promise of a meditation on the madness of modern life; a developing relationship between the obsessive and unlikeable Roger and the mellow and vulnerable Florence; a study of one man's attempt to reconcile his dearly-held '70's values with the self-absorption of the 2010's; the immediacy of caring for a domestic animal and its restorative power; a look at characters trapped between generations, who find no place where they belong; and how two of these people find each other, and in so doing find their places in the world.

Well, these ideas are all presented in "Greenberg", but the promises go largely unfulfilled: the '70's music and ambience retreat quickly, the mood becomes airless in a badly-improvised sort of way, and nothing is dramatized so much as over-discussed.  That's because the film lacks narrative movement.  There is a lot of detail and incident, but large sections of the film feel like dead space, and the pieces don't come together into anything like a satisfying mosaic. It's a shame because a good film can be made about a modern adult comparing his youthful life to the lives of today's young, or coming to grips with the regret of bad decisions made in the past. 

"Greenberg" plays like a Woody Allen film with the wit completely sucked out of it, or a super-neurotic version of 1970's "Five Easy Pieces".  I was particularly reminded of the latter, which analyzed a character (played by Jack Nicholson in a robust and essential performance) who has his feet in two different worlds but who cannot find peace or happiness in either.  Stiller's character clings to the'70's superficially through music and activism, although he wasn't particularly satisfied then, either, having quit a band that might have been his ticket to success.  Now, trying desperately to slow down and "do nothing", Greenberg is merely unpleasant, and inert. Stiller has nothing as dynamic to play as the character of Bobby DuPea in "Pieces", and so his performance alternates between resigned perplexity and startling anger.  It's an alienating character, but Stiller finds an occasional softness that compels us to keep watching him.   

The early sections of the film show Baumbach's breezy control and ironic humor.  Later, as ideas are introduced, then sort of abandoned, the movie loses its sure touch, and we're stuck with an unpleasant central character, who makes occasionally pithy observations, and seduces and then emotionally abuses his innocent love interest.  Gerwig is especially fine here, although her character is mismanaged at the script level; it is difficult to imagine a person who is so self-effacing and passive having the gumption and competence to satisfy her difficult and demanding employer.  To her credit, Gerwig underplays strategically, draws the viewer to her, and elicits most of the laughs and viewer sympathy. She tells us more about Florence with a quirky line reading, or a deceptively vacuous gaze, than the script deserves for her to reveal.

The character of Florence is an inarticulate Annie Hall, a slacker version of Geena Davis' dog trainer in "Accidental Tourist", a character who is the quirky and emotional center of the film.  The worst scene in "Greenberg" seems ripped off from one of the best scenes in "Annie Hall", in which Florence begins an anecdote that becomes a hopelessly shaggy-dog story.  While Allen tied up the scene with great comic timing and gave the addled character her dignity, Baumbach allows Stiller to fly into a rage, out of nowhere, to the embarrassment and distress of Florence, and the film almost doesn't recover from the emotional violence of the scene. 

But her simple and direct care for the dog Mahler foreshadows the eventual unconditional regard for Greenberg, which lands him gently at the threshold of his purpose.  Without using the dog as a mawkish device, it becomes a focus for both characters, a symbol of the value of damaged personalities if given the right support and regard.  Greenberg's intermittent building of a doghouse for Mahler suggests his eventual redemption. This motif works.

This is a film that seems better in retrospect...the tapestry of ennui and hope play  more vividly in memory than they did on the screen, and the dead spots have retreated from view.  The few humorous moments stand out in relief, and the performances of Gerwig and Stiller, as well as Greenberg's best buddy Rhys Ifans, have earned my admiration. It's a Mumblecore film with great production values (mumblecore is a filmmaking movement from the early 2000's characterized by low budgets, apathetic or unemployed 20-something characters who talk about their relationships and failed lives, all with the fashionably ascetic patina of "independent film").  I have heard of viewers' dissatisfaction with the abrupt ending; to me, it was a perfect conclusion, although unfortunately, the best part of the story is the one that I assume will be told after the final blackout.


  1. Great review, Tom! I have heard mixed reviews on this film, some citing a few of the same types of criticisms you cited. It makes me leery about watching it at the theater. I like movies that have better pacing and more satisfying endings, so I will wait until this one hits cable TV. While I don't expect blockbuster type performances from Stiller, I do expect it to be funny at the least.

  2. I really liked Greenberg! Though it's about the '70s, it's about the '90s. It's the slacker character so popular in films of that time, now finally grown up and with nowhere to go. As for that "Annie Hall" scene, I liked it. I felt Greenberg was striking out once more against her generation, and he clearly hates the idea that she has had sex with other people. Look at his reaction when she talks about her most recent dalliance. I see you appreciate it what it went for more than you liked it, and I understand that...but I *really* liked it.