Noah Baumbach is a filmmaker who, up until recently has probably been more famous for collaborating with Wes Anderson then he has as a director unto himself. Perhaps that isn’t fair, after all, Baumbach has made a handful of successful films and has never aped his colleague’s whimsical style; but his most famous work comes in the form of scripts he co-wrote with Anderson, namely The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Fantasic Mr. Fox, as well as his own directorial work in the film The Squid and the Whale which was produced by Anderson. The fact that these two directors have been muses to one another is not surprising, both directors’ films are defined by a mix of dry humor and pathos, and they also seem to be aiming for the same hipster fanbase, but Anderson’s more visually ambitious work has tended to overshadow Baumbach’s down to earth character-pieces. That may or may not change, now that Baumbach has released Greenberg, a film starring a major celebrity and without any credited input by Anderson.
The titular character, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), is a forty-one year old whose stated goal is to be doing nothing. He makes some money on the side as a carpenter, but he spends most of his days writing letters of complaint to various companies and politicians about the little things in life that are annoying him. Greenberg is a New Yorker, but during the film is in L.A. house-sitting for his brother Phillip (Chris Messina) while he vacations in Vietnam. Also tending to the house is Phillip’s assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), a collage graduate who’s a bit too attached to Phillip’s dog to just leave the house to Greenberg. Eventually we meet Greenberg’s friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and learn that the two of them were once in a band which broke up after Greenberg turned down a record deal because it was “corporate shit,” a decision the band was none too happy about. Greenberg is at a bit of a crossroads of course (aren’t they always in these kind of movies) and this month or so in L.A. could prove to be the moment where he comes to terms with the life he’s chosen.
Greenberg is primarily a character study of the title character, who is a pretty fascinating fellow. Greenberg is a socially awkward man slowly slacking his way into middle age. He’s pushed away a lot of his friends and focuses most of his time on the annoyances of the world rather than on his own problems. This isn’t to say that he blames others for his own failings, in fact he seems pretty content with his lot in life, but he’s certainly doing nothing to get his act together. He’s reminiscent of other cinematic misanthropes like Melvin Udall from As Good as it Gets, who like Greenberg, has a propensity to lash out at the people around him in hurtful ways. The difference is that Greenberg isn’t a willful asshole, he just can’t really connect with others very easily and his musings are often misinterpreted as more hostile than they are.
Behind this fascinating character is, of all people, Ben Stiller. Stiller has clearly realized that his indie-cred needed a big boost after making two Night at the Museum films. Stiller got a little cred for making Tropic Thunder, which was pretty clever for a mainstream comedy, but there he’s in full fledged reinvention mode. There’s always been a certain dead eyed cynicism to Stiller’s performances; he’s the kind of comedian who keeps a pretty dead face while doing the wackiest things. Though I wouldn’t call his work here a strictly dramatic role, it is certainly a far cry from the broad comedy Stiller has built his career on, it’s a star turn reminiscent of Adam Sandler channeling his persona in a new direction for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. Greta Gerwig is also a breath of fresh air in this movie playing a character that is, in her own unique way, just as socially awkward as Greenberg. Gerwig is an actress who rose to (relative) prominence in the micro-budgeted festival driven world of “mumblecore” filmmaking, and the kind of down to earth acting and awkward line delivery of those films seems to translate excellently to this character.
Noah Baumbach’s screenplay excellently crafts these characters and gives them some clever, but realistic dialogue. The story itself is largely a framework to explore these characters, but it’s a nicely constructed one. Baumbach finds a number of ways to keep Greenberg and the Gerwig character interacting, like establishing that Greenberg (a New York resident) doesn’t drive and needs a lot of rides, and bringing a sick dog into the picture. Also built into the film’s structure is a really good speech by Stiller that is called back brilliantly in the final scene. The script also has a number of very funny moments in it, even if it isn’t necessarily a work of comedy. The dry humor is of course very different from Stiller’s usual fare, and this is not a laugh-a-minute affair, but Baumbach does get genuine laughs out of situations like a teenage party that Greenberg more or less crashes.
As much as I admire Baumbach’s script and his handling of his actors, I can’t say I was too impressed by his visual style. This is of course a small character driven movie, but then so was Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, and I think this is visually a step down from that previous work. The movie also suffers from a bit of a slow start, it takes a good half hour before the story really gets going, but it only gets better as it goes and by the end its really going strong. I wouldn’t call this the best film from either this director or independent cinema in general, but it’s good work that generally pays off.
*** out of Four