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.

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