West Coast toast
“How are you?” Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh) asks her ex-boyfriend, a perpetually scowling neurotic named Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), early in Noah Baumbach’s new film. “Leonard Maltin would give me a two and a half,” Greenberg responds.
I can’t be quite as kind with Greenberg, a sometimes annoying drama that requires a lot of patience but still exudes enough charm to carry it through. Baumbach, who directed The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding (and who scripted last year’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) also wrote Greenberg, based on a story he and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, conceived.
All these films revolve around the family unit in one way or another, and that unit is usually disrupted by conflict, sexual or romantic angst, and characters who can’t quite find their place in the world.
Roger — known to all as Greenberg — falls into the last category. He’s a musician-turned-carpenter who is out of place in a crowd, and even more so when he’s alone. He just got out of a hospital.
“Was he sick?” one character asks Phillip, Roger’s brother. “Not that kind of hospital,” Phillip explains. With nothing to do but concentrate on doing nothing, Greenberg agrees to house-sit for his
IGreenberg, lost-in-L.A. angstfest, Regal DeVargas, 2 chiles
brother in Los Angeles. Greenberg’s only real chore is to watch the family dog and build a dog house. Enter Florence (Greta Gerwig), Phillip’s personal assistant, who swings by to pick up last week’s check. She discovers that Greenberg doesn’t drive, which means she’s got to run around picking up dog food and whiskey for him. She takes him back to her apartment, where he immediately begins to mechanically perform oral sex on her.
She’s obviously not into it, but she doesn’t protest either. “Do you hear a train?” she nonchalantly asks as Greenberg sets about his task. They don’t get very far after that.
It turns out this is a romantic match made in a trauma ward. Both are hurting — we never quite learn why — and both want to reach out. But in doing so, they tend to hit, rather than caress, because they just don’t know how to love. Even their smiles are hesitant.
The difference between the two is that Florence sees that other people hurt, and Greenberg does not. He’s oblivious to the pain, the loss, and the angst of his so-called friends, including Beth and one of his old band mates, Ivan (Rhys Ifans). Greenberg only begins to feel the slightest pangs of empathy when his brother’s dog falls mysteriously ill and has to be rushed to the animal hospital.
Greenberg doesn’t even come close to wanting to be a feel-good romantic comedy, in which the doggy’s close call with death or any of the other potentially tragic personal events that befall the characters shake Greenberg out of his neurosis to a happy ending. Greenberg is a risky movie. It’s in no hurry to get to where it’s going, and it places considerable emphasis on its title character’s self-indulgent personality. It doesn’t help that Stiller plays the character with either rage or cynical detachment, as if he’s a distant cousin to similar characters in lesser Woody Allen movies.
What does help is the work of the supporting cast, including Gerwig. Her Florence is adrift in a world that seems to have no use for her, and yet she keeps chugging along, vainly hoping that something or someone will tow her into port. There’s a scene early in the film where she wakes up next to a one-night stand after uneventful, clumsy sex, and her hand reaches out to touch her lover’s back with an uneasy caution, as if she’s afraid she will be electrocuted.
Equally effective is the work of Ifans and Merritt Wever, who plays Gina, Florence’s inquisitive, loquacious friend. Gina seems to be the only character in the story who isn’t filled with inner pain. All the other people are in critical condition, and the only drug that can save them is love, which is evidently being rationed.
The editing and presentation of scenes is occasionally confusing, and the soundtrack resonates with hammerlike noises that may remind you of a cuckoo clock using explosions to announce the time — apparently to bludgeon us with the notion that life can be a loud, bumpy ride for some. There’s very little back story — Baumbach prefers to put people who are internally torn up in an unfamiliar environment and then watch them either implode or desperately attempt to save themselves. Still, the picture has the weight of quiet authority, it’s laced with juicy little moments of wry humor, and it’s packed with enough quirky sequences to make you want to root for these people.
Mind the heel: Greta Gerwig and Ben Stiller
Ennui for three: Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, and Ben Stiller