Thursday, April 1, 2010

Greenberg: Sheer torture

Greenberg (2010) • View trailer for Greenberg
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, strong sexual content, nudity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.10
Buy DVD: Greenberg • Buy Blu-Ray: Greenberg [Blu-ray]

Filmmaker Noah Baumbach opens and closes Greenberg with tight close-ups on Greta Gerwig's expressive face, and in both cases we're overwhelmed by a painfully raw display of naked emotion: hope, uncertainty, frustration and uncomplicated compassion.

Particularly the latter: Gerwig's Florence Marr is the best part of this film, and Baumbach does well to highlight this talented young actress  born and raised in Sacramento -— as much as possible.
After another of their "romantic" encounters goes horribly awry, Florence
(Greta Gerwig) can't wait to abandon the mean-spirited Roger (Ben Stiller) for
the rest of the evening. Too bad she doesn't run him over with a bus; now,
that would be worth watching.

Unhappily, Ben Stiller's title character is the worst part, which makes this tightly wound relationship drama rather difficult to endure.

I'll be more blunt: We're sometimes forced, by circumstance of employment or casual encounter, to spend excruciating hours with people we can't stand. Why the heck should we endure a similar jerk in a movie?

Although we're obviously intended to sympathize with Roger Greenberg  to tolerate and be patient with this lost soul, as he struggles at the mid-life crossroads  Stiller's character doesn't earn such respect, nor is there reason to cut him any slack. He's an abusive, misanthropic, misogynistic, self-centered cretin who doesn't deserve the kindness shown by several of the other characters in this story, and particularly not by Gerwig's Florence.

Watching Roger turn nasty and emotionally belittle Florence is stomach-clutching the first time. Enduring it the second time, the third time, the fourth time ... is inexcusable. Gerwig's performance is so credibly, painfully shaded  Florence is so vulnerable, so willing to suffer the abuse  that it's like watching somebody drown kittens in a barrel.

And to what purpose?

That's the key question about Baumbach's film, which he directed and co-wrote with occasional collaborator Jennifer Jason Leigh. (They worked together on 2007's Margot at the Wedding.) Why are we wasting time with this intellectual thug?

Dramas of this nature are either portraits -— moments in time, not really intended to have defined beginnings or conclusions  or depictions of maturity and growth. Well, the latter doesn't apply; despite Roger's growing fondness for his brother's dog, there's no evidence to suggest that he has gotten a handle on his explosive temper, or his skillful tendency to cripple unprepared friends with cruel words.

Nor does Roger earn any sympathy for his recent convalescence at some psychiatric facility, following an emotional breakdown. This bit of backstory is no more than an excuse for continued bad behavior: a justification  in Roger's own mind  for his unwillingness to man up and own his own impulses and actions.

So we're left with the conclusion that Baumbach's film is merely a random snapshot of Roger Greenberg, which would have looked much the same if taken two years earlier, or two years in the future. That being the case, neither he  nor this film  deserve the 107 minutes required to watch them.

I must give Stiller credit; he's convincingly unpleasant.

The story  set in Los Angeles  begins as Florence, an aspiring 25-year-old singer, bustles through the last-minute details prior to the departure of Phillip Greenberg and his family, as they head off on an extended trip to Vietnam (!?). Florence is officially employed as the family's "personal assistant" -— read: menial gopher  and her scattered, one-room apartment existence couldn't be more different than the elegant Hollywood Hills home where she caters to the Greenbergs and their two children, living the perfectly defined American dream.

Florence, searching for love in all the wrong places, attends art gallery openings and goes home with stray guys. Not because she really wants to, but because she has no reason not to.

Phillip's voluminous notes include the news that she may get a call from his brother, Roger, who has flown from New York to house-sit during the family's absence. The minor responsibilities include caring for the family dog, Mahler, a gorgeous pooch with a face almost as expressive as Gerwig's.

Trouble is, Roger is a true New Yorker: He doesn't drive, hasn't the faintest idea how to navigate Los Angeles, and wants to know why strangers keep using his brother's fancy pool. (They're neighbors; they have long-standing permission.) Most reasonably intelligent people would embrace the opportunity to learn bus timetables and explore such vibrant new surroundings; Roger keeps calling Florence for advice and information, then car rides, then ghastly one-night stands.

So, in addition to his many faults detailed above, Roger's a lazy jerk. And an impressively selfish lover, with the behavior and attention span of a teenage boy encountering a prostitute.

Still, bewilderingly, he's not without friends. The Los Angeles environs also have become home to Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a buddy who somehow got over the trauma resulting from Roger's having broken up their band, back in the day, virtually on the eve of what could have been a successful and lucrative record contract.

Roger, you see, reflexively mistrusts "the man." (Of course he does.) Some of this film's few genuinely funny moments result from the impassioned and indignant letters that Roger writes to the various business entities he encounters: an airline, a pet taxi, Starbucks ... whatever.

Ivan, much like Florence, is a kind-hearted soul who somehow retains the patience necessary to interact with his passive/aggressive friend. As with Gerwig, Ifans almost makes us believe that somebody could be this nice, this forbearing, this charitable. Almost.

Ivan is going through tough times himself  his marriage is on the rocks, and every day is a struggle to retain his sobriety  but of course Roger's too self-absorbed to notice or comment on any of this. Indeed, all Roger does is repeatedly offer Ivan a drink.

Then there's Beth (Leigh), a former flame who got away; she's also single at the moment. Happily, one of this film's few satisfying scenes comes when Beth, gracious enough to meet Roger for coffee, responds with mocking disbelief when he suggests an actual date. And then  unwilling to wait for the check  she positively rushes from the table, pays at the register and beats the hastiest of retreats.

A wonderfully played scene. Thoroughly satisfying.

Doesn't teach Roger a thing.

Things turn even crazier when Phillip's college-age daughter  Roger's niece  shows up with a friend and throws a party that same night, apparently inviting every 20-year-old in the greater Los Angeles basin. Cue an onslaught of booze, drugs, loud music and bad behavior.

The resulting depiction of these younger folks is a breathtakingly angry and mean-spirited indictment of an entire generation ... and this isn't Roger's annoyed irritation, mind you; it's the 40-year-old Baumbach talking through Roger's lips. We have to wonder: Did Baumbach recently get dunked in a toilet by a gaggle of college kids? Where does this hostility come from?

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with the entire Greenberg experience: It's a shrill, hostile screed about a thoroughly unpleasant guy who's nothing but a waste of the oxygen he breathes.

Rachel Getting Married, which this film resembles slightly, also was difficult to endure, but Anne Hathaway's Kym was far more fascinating to watch, cruel flaws and all. Most crucially, characters in that 2008 film made progress. They evolved.

Greenberg, in great contrast, is nothing but incontrovertible proof that Noah Baumbach is a seriously angry individual who fancies himself a 21st century, next-gen descendant of Woody Allen.

In your dreams, Noah. You're not perceptive enough, not funny enough and definitely not talented enough.

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