An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Everything's Gone Greenberg

It's kind of a shame that so much of the filmosphere-media-hivemind's focus on matters Greenberg has been related to the paranoid blatherings of professional lunatic Armond White. There's an actual movie behind all that bullshit—and, in my opinion, it's a great one, the movie to beat in 2010.

Moreso than any other current American filmmaker, Noah Baumbach inspires polarizing reactions. Either you're deeply wowed by his dark character studies of toxic intellectual narcissists or you think he's a bratty huckster with Oedipal issues. I'm always amazed by the quickness with which Baumbach haters seem to dismiss the very notion of spending quality time in the company of unpleasant or unsympathetic characters. I like Atticus Finch as much as the next guy, but if he were the subject of every film I'd get bored with the medium in a hurry. Let's face it: life is filled with all manner of assholes, and if a filmmaker is brave enough to explore the hearts and minds of some of those assholes, why should he be shunned for failing to coo us into calm slumber with warm platitudes? The common label of "misanthrope"—applied even by some of Baumbach's supporters—is, I think, a misnomer. Baumbach—or rather the Baumbach of his last three features, after he graduated from those early Whit-Stillman-meets-Woody-Allen comedies of manners—is intensely interested in lives that go off the rails, in the alienating and alienated, in people who have been bitterly disappointed by life, and in the sorrowful victims of their casual abuse. Misanthrope nothing—if anything, Baumbach is a prickly sort of humanist. What true misanthrope would care enough to put these vituperative fuck-ups under the microscope in the first place?

Shedding the dysfunctional-family milieu of The Squid and the Whale (still probably his greatest accomplishment, if only for the exquisite tension of finding out whether or not the Jeff Daniels character's asshole tendencies will be passed down to his son) and the somewhat more problematic Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach has delivered his most darkly hilarious and subtly heartbreaking film to date. His biggest gamble, I suppose, was casting Ben Stiller in the lead, as an underemployed 40-year-old fresh off a nervous breakdown and subsequent stint in a mental institution. (One of the triumphs of Baumbach's screenplay is the casual, gradual way it doles out this info about Greenberg's recent past. It's neither a facile entry point into his character nor some big bad dark secret that changes everything. It's just some stuff about him that's true. In a more general way, Baumbach's facility with smart, careful exposition is pretty amazing here.) But it's a casting gamble that paid off in a huge way. I'm always interested in instances of comedians donning the tragedian's mask, and Stiller's performance as Greenberg is one of the best of those I've ever seen. (It's everything Adam Sandler's turn in Funny People should have been but wasn't.) Stiller shows not a sliver of vanity. He's unafraid of going to dark places and baring his soul, but the great thing is that he can have his cake and eat it too, because he's funny at the same time. Indeed, this is the funniest of Baumbach's three dramas by a long shot. Who could avoid cracking up at Stiller's flustered reaction to a little kid picking up the phone? (It won't make sense out of context, but his reading of the line "Is this a child?" after several moments of confusion made me lose my shit, as did his delivery of a simple "BYE!" after another character told a shaggy-dog story that pissed him off so much he stormed out of the house.)

As revelatory as Stiller is, he's matched every step of the way by the she's-got-something-but-I-can't-quite-put-my-finger-on-it quality of Greta Gerwig, the breakout mumblecore starlet who A.O. Scott recently vaunted as possibly "the definitive screen actress of her generation." It remains to be seen whether Gerwig's disarming naturalism will translate to an ongoing career in bigger-budget indies—I can definitely see her taking the Michelle Williams route, though it's equally plausible that she'll go back to the DIY scene that created her—but she adapts her own odd style of anti-acting to a somewhat more mainstream setting quite well as Florence, Greenberg's younger sorta-paramour who's drawn to some inner kernel of goodness in the man that others can't see. The relationship between Greenberg and Florence doesn't follow any formula. It's a weird coupling based on an icky cocktail of self-loathing, inertia, curiosity and vain hopes of cracking the shell, and Baumbach lets it play out at its own rhythm. It's also, in its strange way, the most moving screen romance I've seen since Punch-Drunk Love, which is sort of its fractured-fairytale flipside. And if the movie seems a little light on Gerwig screen time in proportion to her off-the-charts charisma, well, look at the title.

And there are the pleasures of Baumbach's language. No one writes sharper dialogue. It's the kind of movie that makes you wish you had a notepad handy to jot down all the juicy zingers. I didn't, but here's one from memory, Greenberg on L.A. parenting culture: "All the men dress like children, and all the children dress like superheroes." Cinematically, Baumbach and master cinematographer Harris Savides—whose work with Baumbach is wildly different from his work with David Fincher, which is wildly different from his work with Gus Van Sant, and so on—work on a widescreen canvas that that showcases the expansiveness of L.A. while continually placing Stiller on the margins of the frame, reflecting his semi-willful alienation. It's a literary film in some ways, but unlike so many actual lit adaptations it doesn't suffer from lack of psyche-probing prose, because Baumbach's characters are designed for the screen rather than the page.

Although the Atticus Finch crowd likely won't feel this way, I was surprised by how much I ended up liking Roger Greenberg. For all his selfishness and oblivious cruelty, there's a yearning and a sadness at his core that goes beyond humanizing a dickhead and into the realm of deep pathos. He is not the raging monster of Nicole Kidman's Margot—I love the critic Steven Boone's suggestion that Margot works best as a horror flick with Kidman as the bogeyman—but a lonely, wounded man whose delusions and off-putting mannerisms were borne of self-protection. Two scenes—a crushingly revealing coffee with an ex-girlfriend and a rambling drunk-dial voicemail to Florence—drive this point home with subtle clarity. By way of closing, let me point out that Roger Greenberg is about the age that Jesse Eisenberg's character in The Squid and the Whale would be now. Is Baumbach drawing a cross-film continuum of "hurt people hurt[ing] people"? Let's just say it's not hard to imagine Greenberg—a failed musician—trying to pass off Pink Floyd's "Hey You" as an original composition at a high school talent show.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010

Some quick mythbusting

Boy, am I tired of the "no one saw The Hurt Locker" meme. I know it's the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever, which obviously makes it awesome that it beat the box-office juggernaut Avatar. I understand the David vs. Goliath angle that the media has taken, and I don't have a problem with it.

But every time I hear some variation on the "no one saw The Hurt Locker" line from some media outlet, all I can think of is, just because you didn't see it doesn't mean no one did.

I hate looking at box-office numbers, but let's take a look, shall we?

First, please understand that The Hurt Locker is what you call an independent film, which means it was MADE OUTSIDE OF THE STUDIO SYSTEM. At the most basic level, that is what "independent film" means. It was made for $11 million, which isn't cheap by normal human standards but obviously is considered "low-budget" by the standard of Hollywood studio productions. Given that the movie was independently produced and financed, and released by smallish indie studio Summit Entertainment, IT WAS NEVER GOING TO HAVE A SUPER-DUPER WIDE RELEASE. Look, I feel for the Oscar telecast viewers in South Dakota or wherever who were scratching their heads at why they hadn't heard of this year's Best Picture winner. But media folks, you should know better.

OK, now let's crunch the numbers. According to Box Office Mojo, The Hurt Locker has made about $14.7 million domestically, and $21.3 million worldwide, which is, as far as I can tell, really fucking good for an indie in the current climate. By comparison, the similarly mid-level indie A Single Man, which had a budget hovering in the same ballpark ($7 million), made something like half of Hurt Locker's domestic gross with about $8.5 million. Or to really get some perspective, the beloved-by-me indie Humpday, which was a micro-budget affair, made only about 400 grand.

The Wikipedia article on The Hurt Locker is instructive as to how successful the film was: "It held the highest per-screen-average of any movie playing theatrically in the United States for the first two weeks of its release, gradually moving into the top 20 chart with much wider-released, bigger budget studio films."

The Hurt Locker was a smashing success. It's dumb to pretend that it was some out-of-nowhere obscurity that toppled Avatar despite being seen by no one.

The prevalence of that ignorant attitude is just one reason why this victory for independent film is such a necessary and welcome one.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

R.I.P. Barry Hannah

"I looked over the despondency of the home crowd. Fools! Fools! I thought. Love it! Love the loss as well as the gain. Go home and dig it. Nobody was killed. We saw victory and defeat, and they were both wonderful."

--Barry Hannah, 1942 - 2010. You have to read this guy's stuff. Go track down Airships or Ray as soon as you can. If you've ever trusted me on anything.

Here is the AP story on Hannah's death.

(Photo of Hannah via Jack Pendarvis.)