A Neurotic Misstep, by Josh Long

16 Apr

Written and Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Chris Messina

I should start out by saying that I am a great admirer of the films of Noah Baumbach. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed much of his work, and I consider him to be an important figure on the artistic cinema front – I even enjoyed Mr. Jealousy, the film which caused blow-hard New York critic Armond White to wish abortion on the filmmaker 1. It’s no masterpiece, but it certainly doesn’t deserve such harsh criticism. But White isn’t alone in his disdain for Baumbach. His recent Margot at the Wedding received harsh reviews almost across the board, despite his 2005 success with The Squid and the Whale. In going to see his newest film, Greenberg, I expected to be defending him from the critics once again. But that isn’t what happened.

Greenberg is about a New York carpenter named Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) who temporarily relocates to his brother’s house in Los Angeles. Roger is feeling lost and aimless, and hopes that taking some time away from New York, taking some time to “do nothing” will help him find some direction. While there, he meets his brother’s personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) and falls for her. But his curmudgeonly attitude and neurotic tendencies keep him from really coming close to her. The film is about a character who needs to come to terms with his own dysfunction in order to foster the relationships he so desperately needs.

Dysfunction in Baumbach films is not an uncommon topic. However, in his other films, he presents it as more of an unsolvable problem. In both Margot at the Wedding and Squid and the Whale, we find families that are wrought with serious dysfunction. But the people in these families have no choice but to carry on, because it’s all they have. It’s all they know. The relationship between Nicole Kidman and her son in Margot is poignant because we can see that they are terrible for each other, but they couldn’t do without each other. They cannot make it apart. Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Squid and the Whale wants to have a normal life, but the struggle between his parents is part of who he is.

Flashforward to Greenberg – Roger Greenberg is clearly a mess. He’s needy for attention, awkward around people he doesn’t know, and bothered by the minutia of life. He needs to grow as a character, but the film doesn’t let him. We essentially watch ninety minutes of dysfunction, to show us what he’s like, and then have five minutes of hope at the end. Even the ending solution is weak; there’s no promise that the change in him (if there’s been any change at all) is lasting or means anything. It doesn’t have the same “we’ll just have to go on” attitude that has heretofore characterized Baumbach’s writing. It shoots for a “love conquers all” conclusion, which is at best, trite, at worst, unbelievable.

The film revolves around this character, and fails, to me, because we don’t want to watch him. Not that I expect him to be endearing, but Baumbach has before provided us with a panoply of unlikable people we can’t help but watch 2. Part of the fault is with Stiller’s performance. He doesn’t have the subtle earnestness that the movie wants to portray. He’s a man who’s obsessed with himself, but disgusted with his own self-obsession. We should see a man who doubts himself at every turn but would never show it. A man who never wants to grow up but feels impotent, as his old friends grow up around him. All of these notes could be there, but he doesn’t seem to be able to play them. This is a character who hates himself, but Stiller isn’t able to really show that 3. We shouldn’t need the script to tell us who he is, we should be able to see it in his face. Besides that, he’s paired with Greta Gerwig, whose naturalistic acting seems straight out of Cassavetes. Their acting styles just don’t fit together. I really enjoyed the first few minutes of the movie, showing Florence in her daily routine. As soon as Greenberg shows up, things go downhill.

I was a little bothered with the structure as well. The film doesn’t flow very naturally; it seems to jump from scene to scene in an order that’s almost arbitrary. Several of the scenes could be re-arranged to put them in different parts of the movie with little to no change. While it has chances to ramp up and move forwards, it does a lot of ambling. One scene, a party that Roger’s niece throws at the house, goes on for far too long 4.

Surprisingly, the film has garnered a lot of positive review. Roger Ebert even suggested that Ben Stiller was “born to play” this role. I don’t want to pan the film as a whole. I like that the film shows us a character who needs relationships to help him find his way out of his own head. He recognizes that his problems are due to his own self-obsession. There’s a clever irony in that the one who helps him grow up is fifteen years his junior. The character is set up for such an interesting ride, as he passive aggressively lashes out at everyone close to him and refuses to allow others in. His wayward state in life is hammered into his head every morning he wakes up in his successful brother’s palatial home.

But compared to Baumbach’s other films I feel like it disappoints in its execution, and squanders its potential. The emotional depth I’ve become accustomed to is sadly lacking here. Hopefully this is an isolated step down for the filmmaker, and not a sign of things to come.

1. Bear in mind that White is known for his contrarian attitude. Fellow critic Roger Ebert said of him “White is, as charged, a troll. A smart and knowing one, but a troll.”

2. Jeff Daniels in Squid and the Whale, Jack Black in Margot at the Wedding, Chris Eigeman in Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell movie). Roger Greenberg has every potential to be engaging – he’s like a more bitter Woody Allen. He’s a very Charlie Kaufman-esqu character, but doesn’t deliver the same emotional punch.

3. The more I notice this in reviews, the more I think this is the biggest problem with the movie. If this character hates himself, we feel sorry for him. We finally become the audience he wants to feel his pain, and the fact that there isn’t (for him) any audience is what’s so painful. He wants attention, and looks down on himself for wanting attention. He’s mad at other people, but blames himself for alienating them. This should be written all over the performance, and it’s just not. I’m not even saying Stiller can’t do it; I’m just saying in this film, he doesn’t.

4. I hate to say it, because I enjoy Ben Stiller as an actor, but his performance in this scene in particular was difficult to watch; he isn’t believable, he seems to break character, he takes drugs but overplays the effects. It just didn’t work for me.

One Response to “A Neurotic Misstep, by Josh Long”

  1. nathansmart April 19, 2010 at 2:18 pm #

    I don't know about the hopeful ending. My wife and I talked about how we didn't really enjoy the ending so much because there wasn't any change to the character at all. We were bummed for Florence because she was just going to get back into the cycle. It was so hard to care for Greenberg at all because he was such a jerk-off and the movie didn't have enough over-the-top situations (like Squid) to make it at all endearing. That's not something that I need in a film – hope and change, etc. – but the movie was hard to sit through because of the awkwardness of Greenberg. That party scene was almost unbearable – his inability to censor himself coupled with the young people trashing that house was a disaster waiting-to-happen but never did!

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