Sometimes a movie just makes you want to bellow, “Shut the FUCK up!” It doesn’t happen that often, at least not at my house. Still, I must admit that when watching Noah Baumbach’s 2012 effort, the Ben Stiller vehicle Greenberg, it nearly escaped my lips on more than one occasion.
I don’t think anybody could really blame me however. In the post-Squid and the Whale world Baumbach has seemed to favor tales that focus on increasingly repulsive characters. This is certainly a strong statement, seeing how The Squid and the Whale was basically about a family of misanthropes. Yet, films such as Margot and the Wedding and now Greenberg are filled with characters that make the rancorous Berkman clan seem like a band of cuddly Telletubbies. Consider the mopey personality of the film’s lead character: Ben Stiller’s eponymous Greenberg. After suffering a nervous breakdown while living in New York City, Greenberg moves into his brother’s opulent Los Angeles home for a few weeks, ostensibly to house and dog sit for the family.
Once there, surrounded by plush comfort on every side, Greenberg (who is a carpenter by trade) proceeds to write disparaging letters to various businesses that have displeased him. He also reconnects with an old, exhausted-looking friend named Ivan (Rhys Ifans – that scaly SOB from Amazing Spiderman), who was a former band mate of his when he lived in Los Angeles. Instead of taking joy in this reunion, Greenberg behaves like a sarcastic little twit, seizing any opportunity to tear down Ivan’s attempts to heal his fractured marriage and connect with his child.
The fun doesn’t stop there. Greenberg also starts up a twisted relationship with a gal named Florence (Greta Gerwig), the personal assistant of Greenberg’s brother and family who is roughly 20 years his junior. All cradle-robbing comments aside, Greenberg acts like a lecherous sleazeball towards her, swooping in on poor Florence like a geriatric monkey going after a fresh, nubile banana. Thankfully for the old man, Gerwig’s Florence is all kinds of fucked up, a woman who claims that she has just gotten out of a relationship, wants to avoid anonymous hook-ups, but then proceeds do engage in them anyway. Their first interaction, for example, descends quickly into fairly explicit sexual liaison. It’s a tough scene to watch. Their coupling is so awkward that it made me wish I had never even heard the word cunnilingus.
This film is basically about how these two people push Greenberg to do a little soul-searching. In the title role, Stiller is effective, giving a nuanced performance that stands apart from many of the cartoons he has played over the years. The film saddles him with a plethora of quirks and gimmicks (chronic dependence on chapstick and an aversion to driving are some of them). These all feel rather superfluous. Far more affecting are the quiet moments where the man is simply forced to confront his past failures and disappointments. One of these scenes involves meeting up with an old flame (embodied by Jennifer Jason Leigh in a bit part) who clearly has not cherished their shared memories with the same degree of intensity. Stiller’s crestfallen look in this scene feels very genuine.
Rhys Ifans plays a rather unchallenging character, but he plays it beautifully. His Ivan, who once was rock star like Greenberg, with big dreams and big hair, has now grown up, much to the latter’s chagrin. This character is used to illustrate perhaps where Greenberg needs to go, suggesting that putting the past to rest would be a much-needed, positive step for this tousle-haired creep. Finally Greta Gerwig, Baumbach’s young ingenue, gives a performance that can best be described as equaling the awkwardness she displayed in 2013’s Francis Ha. Her Florence is perhaps even more inhuman than that role, however, which benefited from the touching, relatable friendship of Francis and Sophie.
Despite the capable performers and the presence of a few strongly written scenes, Greenberg is a very difficult film to like, much less love. Maybe it has never been all that palatable but it seems that more and more stories about affluent white people, who have the time and economic freedom to “do nothing for a while,” have become harder to stomach. Greenberg certainly falls prey to this. Its focus on a man who doesn’t really have that much in the way of real problems doesn’t make for the most compelling of viewing.
And there is the main point. One can make an effective and even a powerful movie about the trials and tribulations faced by affluent, educated Caucasians residing on one of the coasts. Baumbach has made one already: it was called Squid and the Whale. Woody Allen and James L. Brooks have made whole careers out of the subject – so we know it can be done. But it isn’t done here. With its meandering nature and only marginally engaging characters, Greenberg doesn’t come close to the echelon of Brooks and Allen. This makes it feel appropriate when during a party sequence Zosia Mamet appears, looking severe and indignant, as if even she (an actress on the similarly-themed show Girls) knows she is slumming it.