The lives of misanthropes have made for interesting cinematic fodder for decades. Ever since the halcyon days of American New Wave, gifted auteurs have profiled amoral, self centered human beings in the hope of discovering some deeper truth about the nature of the human condition. Often this approach has paid huge dividends. Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and many others have made masterpieces that contemplated the inner workings of deeply unappealing human beings. And in that tradition, writer/director Noah Baumbach has made a few really strong films (The Squid and The Whale, Margot at the Wedding) and co-wrote an excellent one (The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou) but with Greenberg, he (and co-writer Jennifer Jason Leigh) created a film of almost no redeeming value.
That’s not to say Greenberg is awful. It features Ben Stiller’s finest performance in years as the title character and highlights the considerable talents of mumblecore veteran Greta Gerwig as his long suffering love interest. In the film, Stiller plays the flipside to all of Judd Apatow’s amiable losers; he’s a man of keen intellect and negligible drive. He writes letters to American Airlines complaining about their malfunctioning seats and lectures young people about their lack of fear. He’s lazy, casually cruel, and totally locked into a protracted adolescence. It’s refreshing to see Stiller take on a role of that isn’t a cartoon character and he plays it very well. While he allows Greenberg to be both vulnerable and loathsome, he never crosses over into sympathetic for very long. It’s a rare and satisfying thing to see an up market star like Stiller to wallow in such stark ugliness. Stiller’s commitment to unlikablity is met in turn by Gerwig’s totally unselfconscious portrayal of an LA girl unsure of what to do next. Gerwig plays the role with a hint of ironic distance. She never plays a false note in the entire film and is inarguable Baumbach’s sweetest character.
The performances in the film aren’t the problem. It’s every other aspect of the film that makes it so wearisome to watch. Greenberg is glacially paced film with no real stakes. The entire main plot of the film is this, Greenberg is house-sitting for his more established brother and enters into what could generously be called a romance with his brother’s assistant. We learn why Greenberg is an unpleasant person and his dalliance with Gerwig character proceeds in fits and starts but never really coalesces into anything serious and then the film ends, with no catharsis or resolution.
Films that eschew relatable protagonists and narrative satisfying ending can be wonderful, but only if the film is strong enough to stand without them and Greenberg isn’t one of those films. Baumbach and his cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac) make the film’s Southern California setting as dull and colorless as humanly possible and any attempt at social commentary in form of Greenberg’s increasing tedious rants against modern society are severely undercut by his perfidious behavior. There’s no underlying theme or profundity in the film beyond a wincingly obvious moral of “some people aren’t worth the effort” and that’s material that more skilled filmmakers have explored in depth.
Baumbach is a talented director and a gifted writer but with this film, he fell short of his ambitions. He clearly wanted to make a meaningful film that had something to say about damaged, intelligent people and the ways in which the love and hate each other in but he only succeeded in creating a paean to Generation X self indulgence. His film has no grace, no transcendence and ultimately no meaning outside of itself. He tried to stand on the shoulders of the giants that created Taxi Driver and Manhattan and tumbled off, awkwardly and insignificantly.
All of the releases mentioned here have links to their respective Amazon pages but you can also visit Cleveland area Blockbusters, Family Videos, and redboxes for these and other new releases.
Mario blogs regularly at A Polemic Killer Room