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Greenberg

We need mindless knockabout laughs right now, don’t we? Isn’t this the worst time imaginable for a director to foist a glum forty-something on us? This isn’t austerity entertainment. But it’s my kind of perky exercise: hope through queasy observation of someone even more hopeless than me.

Greenberg is the junior brother brought across America to his old stomping (meekly acquiescing) ground to look after senior Greenberg’s plush abode. It’s hardly a spanner in the works: Greenberg doesn’t, work that is, has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and spends his time specifically and diligently observing the ultimate no-hoper discipline: doing nothing. Which he continues apace from the first moment we see him, misanthropically appraising himself, from a suitably afar window, of the pool-hogging neighbours. Beyond heading out for sustenance (food, alcohol) and mooching around the house, he would appear to be a compulsive bleater-via-letter, eking out missive after missive in response to perceived/flimsy/intensely pedantic slights. He would also appear to like a drink.

On hand to offer assistance is his brother’s assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig – Chloe Sevigny meets Kristen Wiig), who seems equally suffocated, in her case by aimlessly drifting from one unhappy scenario to another with little defence beyond a mumbling commentary of despair to fight her careening hoplessness. She’s too fragile and submissive (we see her drifting into an empty one-night stand without a word of resistance other than: ‘Maybe this isn’t the best way to start a relationship?’ Response: ‘This isn’t going to be a relationship,’) to deter Greenberg’s clumsy intentions when, from out of nowhere, during a nondescript second half-encounter, he makes a move. Perhaps he sees her vulnerability etc but it doesn’t ring true. In any case, it becomes a painfully stop-start non-romance, he too erratic and combustible to accept anything that seems to be going well, she too yearning and open to ever be entirely as offended as she perhaps should be by his antics.

Along with painfully abortive on-off relationship resuscitation attempts, Greenberg (Stiller, excellent) has his old band/schoolmates/girlfriend to reacquaint himself with/try to avoid. His ex-band members loathe his causing their demise by contract veto way back whenever. All but one, that is – Rhys Ifans (best thing in the film) doesn’t (initially) seem too perturbed by his one-time fatal kibosh of their potential careers, and nor does their easy rapport seem glitched or corroded. He seems largely indifferent to any missed opportunities, as does Greenberg – but this will eventually be revealed (as it in turn reveals a glimpse of their respective buried inner-turmoil) as way wide of the mark for both.

Jennifer Jason Leigh gets two scenes – one of which must rank as one of the more painful revisits of old, long-dead romance in cinema. He tries to rekindle things in typically impertinent-slacker-trying-to-seem-at-peace mode only to be swiftly and mercilessly rebuffed-then-abandoned by someone clearly never that enamoured with him. His arrogance – ‘I could’ve seen us having a few kids’ – is nullified with assertions to the negative and a quick, mortifying (thoroughly deserved) desertion looms.

So, he’s hapless and socially-crippled – the demanding amongst us might have hoped for more mirth from such a character – and, when he’s not dodging the guests at his own gathering, instigating a road-rage incident before fleeing a riposte, or erupting at the temerity of a restaurant birthday rendition in his name, he just about hangs onto our goodwill, ditto the film, which starts well but, even though I like deliberate, unflinchingly low-key films, doesn’t possess enough levity to truly work. We will only ever, it seems to me, buy such a curmudgeonly central character if the laugh-count is high or we’re in another genre entirely (and what genre does Greenberg even belong to? I might suggest a new one: Bipomo). About Shmidt is an easy reference point here.

Greenberg, then, is well worth a watch, with reservations. But for Ben Stiller and the quietly superb Ifans it might not have been.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Mary Gilbert
    October 13, 2010 at 10:22 am

    I saw this film about three months ago and until your review I hadn’t given it a second thought apart from a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. I liked The Squid and the Whale and Ben Stiller is a great comic actor so there was some anticipation that this film would be entertaining but it disappointed me. First of all I thought there were lost opportunities for satire but I quickly realised that it wasn’t going to be a film that skewered middle class mores like TSATW. Then the character of Florence – fragile and submissive in your kinder opinion – blank, drippy and annoyingly vague in mine. Then of course there was Greenberg himself and I do admire Ben Stiller for his portrayal of someone very different from his usual comic roles. However, I think Baumbach was confident that somehow we would find this man’s dreary self obsession and loser – like awfulness beguiling but for me it was mainly tedious. The party scene seemed designed to ratchet up the excruciating social faux pas as if that itself was funny ( Ricky Gervais often does this but usually more successfully) but I found it irritating. Rhys Evans – excellent – I agree.
    As for other films about losers – have you seen the Irish independent film Garage? Here’s a film about someone who is a little simple and on the margins of society trying to negotiate a world he doesn’t really understand. It’s beautifully acted and absolutely heartbreaking and it’s a film I think about often – unlike Greenberg!

  2. Lee Monks
    October 13, 2010 at 10:59 am

    It’s not something that led to much musing afterward, I must admit. And your mentioning of Florence prompts me to agree. As a foil for Greenberg, Baumbach asks a lot of an audience to vehemently root for either. She’s totally adrift in a different way to Greenberg – and yes, them colliding is briefly interesting – and yet there’s no surge of anything between them, no desire that you see them get together more auspiciously and permanently, and there’s a lack of balance to the whole enterprise. I think Greenberg is the stuff of interesting short-fiction. There’s just not a great deal cinematic about it. And yet: the performances elevate it to the lofty heights of watchability!

    I haven’t seen that film and I will certainly try and get hold of it, thanks.

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