Thursday, April 1, 2010

Review of Greenberg

An excellent movie that's a comeback of sorts for Baumbach and Stiller. This review appeared in the April issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Writer/director Noah Baumbach has spent a generous portion of his career thoughtfully examining the lives of deeply flawed people without resorting to morals or hugs. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. His last two movies (2005's The Squid and the Whale and 2007's Margot at the Wedding) featured narcissistic writers at odds with their families. The first movie was a beautifully acidic and layered character study. The second movie, a shrieking, aggravating affair, is best enjoyed wearing earmuffs and with a bottle of aspirin nearby.

With his latest effort, Greenberg, Baumbach rediscovers that regardless of how annoying your main character is he or she has to have a shred of likeability. And oddly enough, his muse is Ben Stiller, who has spent the last decade becoming a comedic cliché. Stiller's timing is impeccable. He helps Baumbach turn his latest ode to dysfunction into a powerful and poignant account on how life rarely adheres to our expectations or our principles.

For Roger Greenberg (Stiller), 40 and floating, adulthood is a vague concept. His choice in life is to not do anything, so there's time to work on and stay at his vacationing brother's beautiful Los Angeles home. There's a feeling that this is another in a long line of restarts for Greenberg, who just had a nervous breakdown. He has no obligations—after all, he can afford to spend six weeks and 3,000 miles away from home—and nothing that defines him. He's happy to criticize friends and businesses (the man is a furious letter writer), but participation is not his strong suit. The trip to Los Angeles, his hometown, is a constant reminder of that. He catches up with an old flame (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now a divorcee with kids; his best friend (Rhys Ifans), a rebel turned responsible adult; and a bandmate (Mark Duplass) who still can't forgive Greenberg for choosing his principles over the band's record deal. In his defense, Greenberg insists that the A&R people would have screwed them over anyway.

As Greenberg hangs on his cross, he gets close to Florence (Greta Gerwig), the young personal assistant for his brother's family. Florence is the kind of bohemian beauty who finds Greenberg intriguing; he's aimless, a little stylish, and fiercely smart, but old enough where those qualities have become cool life philosophies. They begin a frustrating romance, which is given depth and perspective by Baumbach. The movie actually begins with Florence confidently running errands to the driving guitars of the Steve Miller Band's "Jet Airliner." She's blonde and young and pretty and has the world's admiration. But as soon as she closes the car's trunk and visits her employers, the music stops cold.

She's given the opportunity to get her payment in cash, but refuses—she knows she can't hold onto the money. At a gallery that night, Florence muses that she's been out of college as long as she was in, and when she starts making out with a random dude, we know Florence has no idea what to do with her rapidly escaping youth. Very soon, being young and full of potential will no longer cut it. She and Greenberg are doomed for each other: Her enthusiasm and smiley nature can soften him; his hardened outlook can toughen her up. But her neediness and Greenberg's inability to live in the present prevent them from moving ahead. They can't drop their roles and enjoy each other, especially the indecisive, dependent Greenberg, who now decides to pursue the passions and people he callously discarded in the mid-1990s.

Baumbach's script—surprise—doesn't provide any easy answers. He lets us watch these two souls stumble toward each other. Building a relationship is hard, forever perplexing work made much more difficult when two people aren't ready for one. Greenberg consistently shatters every coming-of-age, romantic comedy cliché. The sex scenes are remarkably unsexy; Greenberg and Florence constantly say the wrong things; an abortion and a sick dog are bonding moments for these two. The lack of a clearly defined genre may alienate some, but it allows for fully formed characters to take the movie into a rewarding, soul-baring territory.

Stiller has long used faux rage and obliviousness to diminishing comic effect. Here, he channels those qualities into something infinitely more substantial. This is a scared man whose only footing in the world comes from constant criticism and self-denial. Stiller's hesitant demeanor and skeptical stare give his performance a heft that we haven't enjoyed since his days of working with Neil LaBute and Wes Anderson. Gerwig, a relative newcomer, has smart eyes and a sweet eagerness. She reminds you of every youthful beauty who haunts big city bars and sidewalks, but she floors you with her inability to become an adult. It's a performance that's both alluring and vulnerable.

That Baumbach makes you care so much about all this bitching and moaning and misery is a major testament to his abilities. Can he do it consistently? If so, Baumbach could become a master at taking the small details in life and turning them into smart, resonant films. He's back on track with Greenberg; let's hope he drags Stiller along with him. [R]

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