Noah Baumbach's Greenberg makes his earlier Margot (of Margot at the Wedding) look positively cuddly. And that, says Kimberly Gadette, is saying a lot ... though the argumentative Greenberg would probably say a whole lot more.
For a vast majority of Southern Californians, the job market is based on servicing the upper, upper crust – answering to the likes of entertainment chieftains, hoteliers, celebrities, real estate barons, restaurateurs. (Case in point: when any faction of the entertainment industry goes on strike, a hefty percentage of the Los Angeles economic market is crippled.) Add to that the faux bonhomie, the casual first-name basis signifying a SoCal kinship that's as much a façade as the set on any studio backlot, and the line between the haves and have-nots blurs. In this fantasy land of make believe, the sun and stars in your eyes, if you squint just right, it's not all that hard to imagine that the house/office/pool/car that you're tending may very well be your own.
Greenberg's filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh present L.A.'s so-near-yet-so-far paradox with a devastating clarity. But in their harsh delineation of titular protagonist Greenberg, they unwittingly provide us with a whole other reason to want to squint our eyes.
The film opens with Florence (Greta Gerwig) as she's driving her dusty car down Sunset Boulevard, trying to wave and smile her way into an adjacent lane. She's the personal assistant and sometime dogsitter for hotel magnate Phillip Greenberg (Chris Messina) who's traveling with his family to Vietnam for a six-week vacation/business trip. During his rushed, last parting words of instruction to her, he mentions that his brother Roger might be staying at the house (a well-appointed 1920s Craftsman affair located in the Hollywood Hills, replete with well-tended landscaping and the ubiquitous L.A. pool). His wife is concerned, mentioning Roger's recent nervous breakdown and dubious stability. But since Roger might get it together to build a doghouse for their German Shepherd (the pretentiously-named "Mahler"), everything just might be smooth sailing after all.
And so the stage is set for Ben Stiller's Roger Greenberg, a 40-year-old misanthrope peering angrily from behind his brother's curtains, a walking jangle of nerves whose idea of casual conversation is a halting mix of bitter invective and stereotypic catch-all phrases against society at large, all the while casting himself as the lone voice of all that is smart, sensitive and insightful. He writes letters of complaint to companies that he feels have slighted him, never quite grasping how his own actions may be hurting others. And hurt them he does: the love-starved Florence, who deceives herself into thinking that there might be a kind heart beating underneath Greenberg's sleeveless down jacket that he wears, turtlelike, as if to protect himself against any and all potential assaults. He's just as dismissive to his onetime best friend Ivan (sensitively played by Rhys Ifans) as he is to the waiters at Hollywood's legendary Musso & Frank Grill, screaming at them for their attempted serenade of "Happy Birthday." Even when Mahler collapses in a corner, his every pant an effort, the dog's illness is an inconvenience rather than a concern.
Greenberg's unrelenting narcissism, fueled by scenes that often hammer on for much too long, collide with measured Baumbach brilliance. Such as the fully-lit grope between the two leads as they fumble toward a sexual encounter, so brutally, honestly awkward that it viscerally hurts to observe it. Or a ticklish confrontation in a coffee shop between Greenberg and his old flame Beth (the excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh), him trying to win her back while she's waving down the waiter for the check, heading for the exit at top speed. Or the first of three party scenes, cut in non-sequential segments from Greenberg's point of view, allowing us snatches of priceless observations, eg, "All the men out here dress like children and the kids dress like superheroes." But by the third at-home party, Greenberg droning on and on about kids these days, enough is enough.
If the protagonist had only been Florence, perhaps we would have been more enthusiastic. Gerwig, who looks like Kate Winslet's taller, plainer little sister, gives us a sweet, sad creature, a Cinderella who hovers politely at the edge of others' opulent worlds before returning to her one-room hovel. She attempts some sort of singing career by appearing at the occasional open-mike night, her awkward frame bending down over the microphone gently, as if here, too, she's afraid she may be intruding.
Stiller has no such concern. He guns his drama straight at us, yet unfortunately doesn't make the leap from comedian as well as Jack Black, who starred in Baumbach's last tragicomedy (the 2007 Margot at the Wedding.) While Black managed to find an easy rhythm, exploiting the humor along with the rage, Stiller seems defiant, as if he's daring us not to accept his foray into more serious fare. Rather than disappearing into Greenberg, Stiller wears his Greenberg on that old tired vest, as if to say, "Hey, look at me, aren't I versatile and aren't you impressed?" Just a guess, but the fictional Greenberg would probably take offense ... and dash off one more vitriolic letter of complaint to Stiller & Co.
In this halting look at one troubled man's attempt to re-enter society, Greenberg's grabbing on to whatever flotsam bobs into view, it's the tenuous Florence who just so happens to float by. In this film you root against love, hoping for all the world that the poor girl can escape while she still has a chance.
Rating on a scale of 5 smoggy Hollywood hilltops: 2.5
Release date: US: 26 March 2010; UK: 28 March 2010 (Bradford Int'l Film Festival)
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay by: Noah Baumbach
Story by: Jennifer Jason Leigh & Noah Baumbach
Cast: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Chris Messina, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Rating: US = R; UK = 15
Running time: 107 minutes