Billy Gray

Minor Baumbach

In Uncategorized on April 13, 2010 at 11:10 am

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) never wears scuba gear in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. No dense, well-meaning neighbor tells him to go into plastics. But Roger is like a 40-year old Ben Braddock. Marooned in a Los Angeles idyll, he’s selfish, self-destructive and dismissive of everyone around him. All he’s missing is Ben’s redeeming (if naïve) idealism and the undimmed potential of youth.

Greenberg doesn’t tiptoe around being an L.A. movie. And its depiction of the city is about as fresh as the smog that takes up the film’s opening wide shot of Los Angeles sprawl. Greenberg introduces Florence (Greta Gerwig) as she weaves her way through the town’s infamous gridlock—“Will this guy let me in?”

Florence is 26-years old (“It’s weird, I’ve been out of college for as long as I was in it”).  When she’s not singing in empty Silver Lake bars she daylights as Phil and Carol Greenberg’s assistant. They’re a fantastically bobo couple about to head off with the kids for a month in Vietnam. (These aren’t the Disney types.) While Phil’s away, his brother Roger will be crashing in his well-appointed home in the Hills. Florence’s employers give her vague, weary warnings about Roger, telling her he just got out of the hospital. “No, not that kind of hospital” Carol says when Florence asks if he was sick.

But Greenberg is very sick. He mopes around the house and peers at neighbors lounging by his brother’s pool (“They’re allowed there,” Florence explains) as if witnessing an alien invasion. Rogers’s got the classic infuriating blend of insecurity, neediness and superiority down to a science. He’s a narcissist that would make the most solipsistic Woody Allen hero cringe. When he doesn’t cower from people, Roger lashes out at them. It’s inevitable that he’ll latch on to the lost, reluctantly promiscuous Florence.

Gerwig is the main muse of mumblecore, the maximally minimalist subgenre that’s inspired a lot of critical chatter and a fair share of derision over the last few years. Mumblecore didn’t just influence Baumbach’s casting (Mark Duplass, who helped define the aesthetic—or lack thereof—also appears as one of Roger’s jilted ex-bandmates who isn’t afraid to call him out as an asshole), but his screenplay.

I’m not sure it’s a direction he should pursue. Greenberg has the typical Baumbach bite, but less to chew on. Stiller relishes some truly acrid dialogue. And Baumbach’s gift for writing awkward conversation (and a cast that uniformly nails its starts, pauses and averted eyes) is evident. But the zings are less memorable; their impact is muted. Maybe it’s because Angelinos really are that mellow. Or that Roger is such a monster that stunned silence or retreat—as Roger’s ex-girlfriend Beth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who I wish was in the movie more, nails the panic of flagging down a restaurant check as if your very life depended on it—is the only viable reaction.

Baumbach wants the rhythm of these conversations to be off-key. But he doesn’t sustain a mood. They only work fitfully. Mumblecore’s celebration of banality weighs the script down. Viewers miss out on the squirmy glee of hearing The Squid and the Whale’s Jeff Daniels dismiss “A Tale of Two Cities” as “minor Dickens.” And the raw shock that met Nicole Kidman telling her son in Margot at the Wedding that he “used to be rounder, more graceful. You’re stiff now, so blasé.” Cultural references remain, even if they ring false. Roger is horrified that the kids these days don’t know a Wall Street quote or Duran Duran song when they hear one—and that they actually enjoy Korn. Maybe I’m just old, but who under 30 doesn’t know Gordon Gekko or “Hungry Like the Wolf”? Anyway, the trivial asides lack punch.

The stripped down essence extends to James Murphy’s score, a shame considering his LCD Soundsystem credentials. At least the pop tunes, mostly introduced via referential dialogue, entertain. Except for the Korn.

Roger’s old best buddy Ivan is played by Rhys Ifans, a Brit who nails affable LA ditziness. When Roger suggests the old pals watch ‘80s camp classic Mannequin and wonders “what it would be like now,” Ifans asks “What, during the day?” He’s nice enough to demur from calling Roger out on his glaringly obvious flaws until Greenberg prods him into it. Unlike Roger, Ivan’s got actual problems—a sinking marriage, staying sober, tolerating Greenberg—but refuses to wallow in them. You realize quickly that this reunion is the last thing he needs.

Gerwig endears you to a character that might have been annoying in lesser hands. Self-pity has started to creep into Florence, a product of mid-‘20s aimlessness. And even her boss tells her she’s got to speak up for herself. But Gerwig makes that seeming spinelessness more a reflection of interior confusion and kindness than cowardice.

Florence is a singer who hasn’t failed yet. It would be a stretch to say Roger takes her under his wing. He’s eviscerates her in several cringe-inducing scenes. But the small kindnesses he shows her are the closes he comes to charity and also to flashing a caution sign.

At one point Roger repeats a line Beth picked up in therapy to Florence: “You have value.” The platitude actually works, and maybe the point of no-frills mumblecore dialogue is to make the mundane randomly and surprisingly affective. But there aren’t enough unshakable moments.

Greenberg takes a dip in his brother’s pool at one point, but without a Graduate-style wetsuit, he never submerges. You wish Baumbach hadn’t also avoided a more bracing plunge.

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