Sunday, March 28, 2010

Seven reasons I love "Greenberg"

The new Ben Stiller movie, written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding), is almost certain to end up on my list of 2010's best films, just as Baumbach's two previous efforts did in their respective years. Here are several of the many reasons I adored it:

1) Ben Stiller. In Greenberg, Stiller finally takes on a role worthy of his dramatic acting talent after far too many years of doing broad comedy. Nothing wrong with comedy, mind you; I still laugh at Zoolander. But I also remember 1998's Permanent Midnight, in which Stiller memorably played troubled writer (and addict) Jerry Stahl, whose memoir inspired the film. Roger Greenberg is addicted to a negative worldview more than anything else, and Greenberg is both funnier and more nuanced than Stahl.

Stiller is best known these days as a prankster (see this year's Oscars, and last year's, and 2008's...) and the star of broad, slapsticky comedies (There's Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, etc.). He wears his age interestingly in Greenberg, looking not unattractive but definitely worn by time. His face has become quite angular, which fits his character's hard-edged emotional exterior to a T. Some critics have mentioned the humanity that Stiller brings to the film's unlikable protagonist, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up with an Oscar nomination. Greenberg pushes people away more easily than he draws them in, but in one moving phone call, he proves his desire to change, and to be able to treat people as they ought to be treated, and as he wishes the world had treated him.

2) Greta Gerwig. She's been one of my favorite actresses since her engaging turn in Joe Swanberg's 2007 mumblecore romantic comedy Hannah Takes the Stairs, and in Greenberg she lights up the screen like the bright star she's bound to become. She's played sweet, aimless women like Florence Marr before, but here she reaches a new peak. Florence sees the best in Stiller's misanthrope, even though it'd be more convenient if she didn't. She begins to fall in love with him, but he resists. The fact is, Greenberg secretly loves Florence's positivity and kindness, but both qualities also scare him, as does any kind of commitment. From a clinic bed, she tells him he likes her more than he thinks he does, and of course she's right.

As Louis Menand once observed, some romantic comedies -- which is what Greenberg is, in a roundabout way -- make you fall in love with only one of the two central characters. We come to like Greenberg, albeit grudgingly, but we love Florence. Gerwig uses her mumblecore training to excellent effect, finding emotional beats-within-beats in a given scene, making every hesitation count. Florence may be confused and the victim of her own dysfunctional patterns, but she's hardly stupid. Maybe she too easily forgives Greenberg's childish tantrums, but one of the film's big questions seems to be whether some people are destined to go through life without healthy relationships. For better or worse, Florence can't believe that's true, at least of Greenberg. And her faith in him, though inexplicable at times, helps him find traces of new hope. The film ends, after all, on a genuinely hopeful note.

3) The secondary casting. Rhys Ifans is superb as Greenberg's best friend, who's understandably ambivalent about the friendship; Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who wrote the story upon which the movie is based, is terrific as Greenberg's ex, who isn't buying his attempts at normalcy and isn't afraid to tell him so; and Chris Messina does great work in a small role as Greenberg's brother, whose conventional success conceals a mean streak that both belies his frustration with Greenberg and reveals that anger runs in the family.

4) The use of L.A. It was David Denby who commented that Los Angeles comes across in Greenberg as a pretty decent place to live -- nothing more, nothing less. It's so often depicted as a repository of airheads and soulless movie execs, or as a glittery wonderland, that it's nice to see it as a real place filled with people who aren't that different from the rest of us (except that they can't imagine getting around without a car).

5) Baumbach's smart, soulful, very funny writing. Greenberg's script is the opposite of lazy; it never rests when it can add another sharp detail. Late in the film, Greenberg picks up a small ruler in Florence's apartment and finds that it's covered with dinosaurs that move when you tilt it. I had that ruler when I was a kid, and the specificity of this prop helps us understand Florence's childlike view of the world even more precisely.

Similarly, we see Greenberg, in a low moment, pressing a crosswalk button with the end of his sleeve wrapped around his hand, so he doesn't have to touch the button directly. This also happens fairly late in the story; at this point, we already know about Greenberg's problems relating to other people, but we're only now seeing the pervasiveness of his obsessive-compulsive tendencies. This revelation not only makes sense, it softens our judgment of his sometimes atrocious behavior. At least it had that effect on me, since I, too, have OCD symptoms. Not since Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, have I seen obsessive compulsion rendered so sensitively.

Baumbach may put difficult characters at the center of his films, but he never does it merely to deride or make a spectacle of them. Jeff Daniels' pretentious academic in Whale, Nicole Kidman's chilly sister-of-the-bride-to-be in Margot, and now Stiller's Greenberg -- they're all deeply troubled people, but they're also undeniably human, and their humanity is never wholly obscured. Those who find Greenberg depressing may wish to reconsider the ending, which feels so right and conveys such hope, in spite of all that's gone before, that I nearly gasped.

6) The sex scenes. They're realistically awkward and revealing of character, not just skin. Maybe the French are still best at filming sex convincingly, but American indies are catching up.

7) The dog subplot. Baumbach found the perfect way for prickly Greenberg and sweet Florence to bond throughout the film: They both love his brother's dog, Mahler. (Greenberg's brother is, indeed, the type of person who would give a German shepherd a pretentious name.) It also happens to be the perfect way to humanize Greenberg, who valiantly scolds a passel of drunk college kids who feed Mahler pizza -- a forbidden food -- after the dog gets home from the vet's. Greenberg isn't exactly one of those people who prefer animals to humans. Instead, he uses Mahler to revive his own ability to care about any living creature; the affection he develops for the dog prepares him for the possibility of loving Florence, who so richly deserves to be loved. At one point, she observes that Mahler might be a person in canine clothing, and Greenberg seems to feel the same way.

I loved this movie so much that it made my heart hurt. I was surprised, quite frankly, that it lived up to my high expectations. It may not be to everyone's taste -- that's the way it goes with Baumbach's oeuvre, apparently -- but those with whom it resonates will find themselves thoroughly rewarded.


Kate said...

Love this, and anxious to see it. There have been a few films lately that have made L.A. look inviting: "(500) Days of Summer" and "In Search of a Midnight Kiss."

Neal said...

I saw them both, and I totally agree. I thought "Midnight Kiss" was the superior film by a pretty big margin.