In Greenberg, Noah Baumbach uproots his caustic aesthetic from its east coast homeland to Southern California, land of warmth and happiness. It’s an intriguing albeit ultimately shortsighted transition, with director of photography Harris Savides’ lush sundrenched images of Hollywood Hills luxury clashing with protagonist Roger Greenberg’s all-encompassing misery. The movie, which turns on an offbeat halting romance between Greenberg and the pathologically sweet Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), takes root in Greenberg’s conscience and stays planted in that all around suffocating space.
Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a forty-something New Yorker (naturally), goes west for a crucial hiatus from Gotham’s bustle. His brother (Chris Messina) and family have absconded to Vietnam for six weeks, leaving their opulent home to our hero, who recently ended a stay in a mental institution. As portrayed by Stiller, he’s quite the piece of work — depressed, prone to Tourette’s like outbursts and utterly committed to underachieving on principle. Though born and raised in Los Angeles, he’s a classic New York nebbish — imagine the young Woody Allen without the mischievous Vaudevillian bent — and it’s an understatement to say he doesn’t take to the uneasy blend of the natural and urban that defines the city’s distancing, car saturated culture.
When he’s not complaining, or dashing off angry protest letters, he’s probably badgering Florence, his brother’s personal assistant. With her steadfast patience for Greenberg’s quirks, her grace under pressure and her quiet, gentle beauty she exerts a strong gravitational pull. In the movie’s earliest scenes, in which she runs errands for her employers to the Steve Miller Band’s Jet Airliner, Gerwig effortlessly fills the frame, applying the down home, relatable style of acting she perfected in the Mumblecore world to Baumbach’s larger, more polished canvas.
Beautiful without seeming fake, with a tinge of sadness illuminating and amplifying her character’s overarching fortitude, the actress makes quite an impression. She’s so charismatic that it’s a letdown when the picture shifts perspectives, turning her story over to Greenberg’s. As their relationship stops and starts — swinging between awkward sexual encounters and Greenberg’s selfish, cutting rants — one begins to feel a powerful urge to save her from her terrible, monotonous fate.
The most frequent criticism lobbed Baumbach’s way (one made prominently, and with a lot of hyperbole, by New York Press critic Armond White) is that he indulges in cinematic misanthropy, wallowing in facile, elitist misery. There’s an element of truth to that characterization, but it’s not entirely fair. To put Greenberg in context with recent Baumbach, it occupies a middle ground between The Squid and the Whale’s authentic representation of the crushing egotism pervasive within the intelligentsia and Margot at the Wedding’s ugly self-indulgence.
The film looks great, presenting a snazzy depiction of cosmopolitan L.A. that serves as a grounded, realistic valentine. Baumbach seems refreshed by the new milieu and its foreign, alienating qualities, presenting it as an exotic amalgamation of hills and boulevards so different from the five boroughs of New York it might as well be Timbuktu. The city permeates Greenberg’s being. He’s perpetually overwhelmed by the burdens of house sitting and desperate for rides — he decides to take a swim in his brother’s idyllic enclosed pool, remembers he doesn’t know how, and finds himself paddling wildly, rattled by the sound of a rumbling jumbo jet overhead. His self-sufficiency is siphoned away, leaving him increasingly exposed. The need for a strong, durable human connection slowly dawns.
There are undoubtedly people as dreary as Greenberg, so attuned to the dark side of life that they’re beyond redemption. Stiller presents his destructive misanthropy with aplomb, but falters when it comes to drawing out the hurt, sympathetic man inside. For the picture to work, the audience must accept that Florence would see something in Greenberg that kept her returning to him, even as he used and abused her with his sharp, uncensored tongue. Baumbach and Stiller never quite get there. The character fails to transcend his abhorrent exterior, remaining ensconced in the sly jerk persona. He’s impossible to root for and such a jarring, marked contrast with the radiant Gerwig that their dalliances reek of contrivance. Florence becomes a prop, a patsy to allow the filmmaker to develop a reprehensible character wrapped up in lazy, puerile concerns. As Greenberg progresses one thought takes root at the fore of the mind: more Gerwig, less Stiller.
The Upside: Lead actress Greta Gerwig is terrific and the movie, shot by Harris Savides, offers an appealingly sunny vision of Los Angeles.
The Downside: Greenberg is a hateful character and his changes for the better and not deeply felt. The movie spends too much time with him and too little time with Gerwig’s Florence.
On the Side: The movie has caused an enormous controversy — at least within the insular film critics’ community. After the controversial New York Press critic Armond White was disinvited from a screening he RSVPd to and cried foul, declaring it a violation of his “First Amendment rights as a journalist,” accusations, analyses and bits of historical research were bandied about. Things came to a head yesterday with White’s epic response to the flurry, which is worth reading for the ease with which he hides the occasional decent point within volumes of sheer, unhinged nuttiness and ad hominem attacks on Village Voice critic J. Hoberman.