Sunday, March 28, 2010
With its half-filled swimming pools, under-attended open mic nights and huddled masses of struggling actors, writers and musicians hovering around the city like day laborers outside of a Home Depot, Los Angeles has come to represent the place where dreams go to die as much as it does glamor and fame. It's where everyone begins their life as a wistful optimist but invariably ends up jaded or bunt-out. There's a lost souls quality to the people who live there, struggling and failing to live up to what they thought they'd be when they're surrounded by success and cruel reminders of the class and social divide. The characters in Greenberg, the new film from writer-director Noah Baumbach, have all, to varying degree, made their peace with the lives they've given up on and dreams they've abandoned in order to survive. It's a film about compromise and grudging acceptance.
The film stars Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg--an asshole in the strictest, The Royal Tenenbaums, sense of the word--a single 40-year-old man housesitting in Hollywood while his successful and well adjusted brother spends six-weeks in Vietnam on vacation with his family on the sort of third third world jaunt that only the super-affluent consider a lark. At one point an up and coming musician, Roger now works, although seemingly not out of necessity, as a carpenter following a stint in a mental institution (this is the only part of the character which rings false; like Nicholson in As Good as it Gets, the film is trying to provide a medical explanation for a character who is, at his core, a self absorbed piece of shit).
Roger isn't an Angelino specifically. He grew up in LA then moved east and his time back on the west coast feels fleeting. Spiritually though, he fits right in. He's adrift, floating in between his old life and a next chapter he doggedly refuses to begin writing. It's as though Benjamin Braddock has aged twenty years but still can't be bothered to get out of the pool (in an ironic twist, Roger is a horrible swimmer). Returning to Southern California 15 years after blowing up his music career, his relationship with his ex (Jennifer Jason Leigh, also serving as one of the film's producers and story contributors) and his best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans, a hollowed-out shell of a man, too lethargic to hold a grudge), Roger will tell anyone who will listen how happy he is "doing nothing," oblivious to how counter-intuitive that is to everyone around him. Having created a status quo where no one expects anything of him, Roger's entire life seems dedicated to professing his superiority to everyone else, despite scant evidence to back this assertion up.
Like a younger, furrier Larry David, Roger is a casual misanthrope and cruel observer of the human condition, calling out behavior and conversation that fail to adhere to his lofty standards, even when no one's asking for it. Receiving the brunt of Roger's unsolicited opinions is his brother's personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), a gawky bundle of low self-esteem wrapped in vintage cardigans and worn-thin leggings. Florence inexplicably takes an interest in the open sewer of a man, despite being fifteen years his junior and most of his seduction attempts ending in unwarranted ridicule and passive aggressive criticism.
Florence views Roger as vulnerable and a wounded soul, but there's more to her attraction than pity. Herself an aspiring singer, reduced to running personal errands for someone else's family, Florence at 25, is compromised and confused, and perhaps a little damaged from her time spent alone in an indifferent city. Throwing herself at any man who shows her the slightest bit of attention and lacking the filter to keep inside all the overly sincere feelings she has, Florence recognizes in Roger a sense of confidence in who he is, even if who he is is a snarky, barking monster. In a place where everyone's trying to make it, is there value in someone who's comfortable with having already given up?
Greenberg slowly peels back Roger's unearned sense of entitlement, revealing it for all its laziness and selfishness; it's a cynical form of self-awareness cannibalizing itself until you can hardly remember what you're disaffected against. Roger feels about for reasons to douse his burgeoning relationship with Florence, ranging from lack of sexual attraction (equating her to someone who's pretty at the office but less so outside of it) to merely not wanting to put the effort into it. Yet there's a fumbling, messiness to their awkward trysts (the film contains, perhaps, the least erotic instance of cunnilingus I've ever seen), as though Roger can barely contain himself emotionally and physically when he's with her. As the film progresses, Roger's cruelty towards her seems less emblematic of his worldview than it is in response to allowing himself grow close to someone.
Greenberg follows Baumbach's The Squid & the Whale and Margot at the Wedding as his latest film about the awful things acidic, overly-educated types do to the people they love, and it's arguably darker than both of those films. Roger's anger feels genuinely born of disappointment and self-preservation but the film isn't interested in forcing redemption upon him. Instead Greenberg settles for an impasse between Roger's overworked id and the realization that he's alienated everyone around him. Like Baumbach's earlier films, the writing here is precise in the way language can draw blood. There's nothing cute or tittering about the film's verbal assaults and I'll confess to viewing large portions of the film hiding behind my outstretched fingers, as though I were watching a horror film. There's an integrity to the film, in allowing its lead character to be so unwaveringly unpleasant, but that in no way offsets the feeling of watching a slow motion car wreck.
Stiller has spent the better part of the past decade selling himself as a family friendly leading man, but anyone who's seen his brief stint on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or hasn't forgotten that he directed the much loathed Jim Carrey misfire The Cable Guy, will instantly recognize a lacerating arrogance often barely held at bay. Similar to Adam Sandler in last year's unfortunately overlooked Funny People, this is brave, unsentimental work from a talented comedian rarely called upon to do more than act opposite cgi creatures and frequently mug for the camera. For those of us who have watched Stiller stand outside of material that appears beneath him for years now, it's something of a revelation to see him finally laid bare and fully engaged with his subject.
But the final word on Greenberg belongs to Gerwig, a mainstay of the "mumblecore" genre, here receiving the widest exposure of her career. The actress lacks the polish and photo-shopped veneer of a conventional starlet, instead lending the film an earnest gravity and earthy sexuality. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay the young actress is that there doesn't appear to be an actual performance taking place; Gerwig simply inhabits the role, forgoing all affectation or technique and flattening out the character's big emotional moments. It's an incredibly internalized piece of acting as we witness a woman entirely defined by her role as a submissive. A submissive to her career, a submissive to her surroundings, and ultimately one to her heart. Florence deserves better than Roger although seems unlikely to realize it. Roger recognizes that he doesn't deserve Florence; it's to his credit and the film's that he stops using this as an excuse.