As the preview for Noah Baumbach’s new movie Greenberg tells us, the main character, Roger Greenberg, is “doing nothing, deliberately.” Greenberg is about to turn 41 years old, but his resume doesn’t have much on it besides the big record deal his band almost got after he graduated college.
Greenberg is fresh out of the loony bin in New York (he’s recovering from a nervous breakdown) and has come out to Los Angeles to house sit for his wealthy asshole of a brother, who has taken his family to Vietnam for a month. As the preview also tells us, the only things Roger Greenberg is actively “doing” while in LA are building a doghouse for his brother’s German shepherd, and writing letters of complaint to companies whose services he is unsatisfied with, like American Airlines and Starbucks. But other than that, Greenberg is “really trying” to “just do nothing for a while.”
Does this sound like the kind of crisp dramatic material that makes for a compelling film? Probably not. But consider this: with a plot (is that too strong a word?) this loose, the other elements that bring people to the movies—the acting, writing, cinematography, etc—need to be twice as strong.
Unlike Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), which, despite being a superbly hilarious movie, had the major shortfall of brutalizing its most despicable characters, who were (almost) irredeemably awful people, Greenberg is kinder and more generous, to its characters, and to the audience.
Roger Greenberg (played by an uncharacteristically serious Ben Stiller) is so selfish, puerile, and inept that he’s almost pitiful. When he’s not quoting things his shrink said about him, he is accusing other people of “re-enacting old family dynamics” or “projecting” their problems on him. Obviously this guy has had too much therapy.
The object of most of his hostility is the 25-year-old house-sitter and amateur singer Florence Marr (played by an adorably-tousled Greta Gerwig), who Greenberg is falling for, against his own convictions. Their budding relationship, characterized by conversations of extraordinary frankness and by sex scenes of extraordinary brevity and awkwardness, is sometimes charming, sometimes doomed, but always believable.
Small gestures, like the post-abortion cheeseburger he buys for her, which he carefully places on her stomach before she is even fully awake, save Roger Greenburg from being too hateful to love.
If you have seen Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995) and you hated it, don’t be discouraged from seeing Greenberg. His writing has improved by leaps and bounds. He is even able to make the people of LA kind of adorable with statements like,“The adults out here dress like kids, and all the kids dress like superheroes.” There’s a kind of realist anti-drama to the dialogue, where conversations overlap and stop and start with the amusing discomfort that we usually feel only when watching improv. But this does not mean the dialogue is not spot on. No amount of mumbling awkwardness can make us fear the scene has lost direction: no matter how uncomfortable the characters may feel, as the audience, we can rest assured knowing that the filmmakers are taking good care of us.
Greenberg released Friday March 19, 2010. Director: Noah Baumbach; Written by: Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh; Starring: Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig; Music: James Murphy; Running time: 107 minutes
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