Halfway through Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, I identified the vague splinter of recognition that had bugged me since about ten minutes in: the movie is a less-successful, modern-day Manhattan, set in Los Angeles. Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a failed-musician-turned-carpenter who, following a nervous breakdown, visits L.A. to house-sit for his vacationing brother’s family. He meets the Greenbergs’ young assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), and instantly pegs her as a warm-bodied remedy for his aimlessness. Roger spends much of the film obsessing over himself; half-pursuing Florence in ways both charming and emotionally abusive; and judging his old friends for having grown up.
The key difference between Greenberg and Manhattan—besides the lack of a cheating element—is that Woody Allen’s Isaac character is extremely witty and extroverted in his neuroses, whereas Roger is a slightly narcotized, bottled-up, rage-case whose cutting observations are more mean than cute. That degree of realism is fine, but not necessarily as entertainment. As Roger wanders from fancy kids’ birthday parties to dinner with his old band-mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), to stay-in dates with Florence, it’s unclear if Baumbach’s intention is for the audience to want him to get his act together or to identify with his “Damn the Man” struggle against conformity. While Stiller is always interesting to watch, I found the tirades against domestication and constant references to “fifteen years ago” (i.e. when life was the oyster of his twenty-five-year-old self) more and more tiresome.
My biggest issue with the film is Baumbach’s treatment of Florence. In contrast to Roger’s pathetic nobility, she’s given the thankless role of the confused girl who’s much too kind and vulnerable a soul to be sleeping with L.A. douchebags—including Roger. I kept waiting for her to assert herself, to actually make something of her half-dream of becoming a singer. Instead, she proclaims her admiration for Roger’s do-nothing philosophy and falls further in love with a guy who loves hating himself too much to consider women anything but moist and ready Band-Aids.
Like Isaac, Roger has a late-picture revelation that he needs to stop screwing around and get serious about his life—and that means trying to win back the much-too-young-for-him girlfriend; he’d tried to reconnect with a recently separated ex (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the story with Baumbach), but the stench of his stunted growth was a near-instant turn-off. It hits him during a house party thrown by the Greenbergs’ college-age daughter, Sara (Brie Larson), who pops into town for a couple days before heading to Australia with a girlfriend. Roger is appalled by the snarky self-absorption of the coke-and-Zoloft-snorting know-it-alls—until he joins them in a night of drugs and bad music.
Ivan shows up to officially kick Roger out of his life, taking his friend to task for having blown their band’s chances years ago by not wanting to sign with an “oppressive, corporate label”, and for not once showing interest in meeting his eight-year-old son. Roger takes this to mean that his next move should be to fly to Australia with two college girls, leaving behind Florence and his brother’s family’s sick dog. On the way to the airport, though, he has an epiphany; he bolts from the car and back into Florence’s pathetically waiting arms.
I’m being harsh on Greenberg because I really wanted to like this movie. Sadly, it falls flat, emotionally. The performances are uniformly great, but they’re great in service of a script that calls for the actors to play dead and/or severely damaged losers. That’s only fun to watch if the dialogue and situations the characters face are poppy and memorable—as in Manhattan. Noah Baumbach’s laconic snark is no match for Woody Allen’s astutely observed, rat-a-tat wit, which feels both cutting and alive. This movie is very well made, but in the end, I can only see it being meaningful to people I have no interest in associating with.
Jesus, that’s even harsher. But do you see what I mean? It’s like expecting me to care about the drug-addicts on Intervention before their families step in to help. Imagine that help never coming, and watching sad people fall further into denial while seeking out other sad people that they can latch onto with their spite virus. If that’s your cup of tea, then Greenberg is the finest Earl Grey.
If, like me, you prefer some forward momentum, or at the very least humor that doesn’t make your skin crawl, I recommend another Ben Stiller movie, 1998’s Permanent Midnight. In that film he plays heroin addict/sitcom writer Jerry Stahl, also an L.A. creature who nearly destroys himself and everyone around him. But at least that character has an arc rather than a blip. Stiller acts the hell out of that film, unlike in Greenberg, where his detachment is so alienating that he looks like he’s making mental script notes for Night at the Museum 3 rather than paying attention to what the other actors are doing.
I recommend watching Greenberg, and then seeking immediate help if you connect with it.
Trivia: In a bit of cosmic something-or-other, Florence visits a gallery called “Machine”, which reminded me of the English band, Florence and the Machine.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 09/12/11.]