Greenberg: Ben Stiller and Noah Baumbach annoy the hell out of us
The new Ben Stiller film, Greenberg, contained enough sharply written scenes and individual comedic moments to convince me that I’d seen one of the better movies of the year. But then I changed my mind after discussing the film with my son, a soon to be college film student who found the movie’s awkward pauses and forced grimness to be excruciating, its lack of drive a turn-off, its characters vague and pretentious. Upon second thought, I had to agree with most of his criticisms.
Greenberg was directed by Noah Baumbach and written by the director and his wife, the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. She wrote herself the best scene in the film, an uncomfortable let’s-get-reacquainted meeting with Stiller’s Greenberg, who has returned to Los Angeles for a few weeks after a stay in a mental hospital in New York, where he works as a carpenter. Baumbach charts Greenberg’s re-entry into a world he fled from 15 years earlier after he torpedoed an impending record deal his band was offered, a move that seemed to have sentenced him to an unfulfilling career edged with regret and recrimination.
Greenberg is housesitting for his brother, a successful businessman gone for six weeks in Vietnam. Like many West Coasters who moved to New York, he has let his driver’s license lapse. He takes long walks to the store, drinks too much and writes lengthy complaint letters to Starbucks and American Airlines. He begins a desultory relationship with his brother’s nanny that is defined by their respective neuroses: he’s a narcissistic creep and she is a promiscuous underachiever with low self-esteem. He tries to reconnect with the only person in town who will still see him, an ex band mate played by Rhys Ifans, who Greenberg fails to recognize as an adult complete with a child and marriage issues. Their argument late in the movie is another honest but cringe-worthy exchange in a picture steeped in dialogue that often pushes us away rather than inviting us in. Baumbach’s over reliance on words rather than action replaces character development with showy cultural references and dispenses with narrative momentum in favor of a series of tentative, often unctuous encounters between Greenberg and those unfortunate enough to be in his orbit.
Greta Gerwig, a mumblecore regular trading up to this more high profile talkie, has a refreshing ungainliness in her appearance and delivery, but she elicits little sympathy after falling for Stiller’s grouchy sap, a relationship that stimulates her addiction to troublesome one nighters. Since she doesn’t seem anywhere near as damaged as Greenberg, her inability to dump him and get away quick is rendered as an obvious directorial device rather than an organic choice. Once again we find ourselves back in the regrettably fashionable territory of watching a girl who is way too pretty, sharp and stable fall for a socially challenged mutt. Ben Stiller accurately renders the cruel practicality of a head case intellectual, but asking a man as funny as Stiller to be funny by being mean is a coarse trade-off. He is excellent but you hate himYou get an excellent ..
Ultimately, Baumbach fails on the most mundane levels with this film, not only with the routine music choices (Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner” anyone?) and the flat, brownish visuals, but also by not supplying Stiller’s character with a sense of mission. He’s not likeable, but if he had a purpose maybe we’d feel like encouraging him to come out of his embittered shell. In the last scene of the film, Stiller watches Gerwig listen to a phone message he left the night before, a message we already know that is vaguely apologetic, self-pitying and insulting. In other words, Greenberg the man, just like Greenberg the film, still can’t seem to commit.