Writer-director Noah Baumbach makes excruciatingly well-observed films about financially privileged, neurotic, unsympathetic middle-aged Americans. When his films work, they are masterpieces of razor-sharp dialogue and uncomfortable silences and fleeting moments of sympathy for the fundamentally unsympathetic. His latest film, GREENBERG, features a classic Baumbach character, brilliantly played by Ben Stiller. Roger Greenberg is the definition of the bi-coastal American mid-life crisis. He's a forty-something, neurotic failed pop star turned carpenter who spends his life feeling sorry for himself, using recreational drugs, hitting on younger women and basically being self-indulgent and whiny. He is a walking embarrassment - the Uncle who won't grow up - the brother who won't get himself together - the friend who won't admit to his failures.
Greenberg comes to LA to house-sit his brother's house and, taking the family's cue, casually abuses the services of their au pair/social secretary/general all round skivvy Florence (Greta Gerwig). The interaction between the passive-aggressive Greenberg and the vulnerable, low-self-esteem Florence is fascinating. She is sympathetic but hopeless. Greenberg is simultaneously repelled by her openness, and inflated by the fact that he has finally found someone in such dire circumstances that even a loser like him can help her. (I've been rewatching the classic 1981 BRIDESHEAD REVISITED recently, and as far apart as these things are, I thought I recognised something of the relationship of Sebastian Flyte and Kurt in Greenberg's attraction to finally being of use.)
I liked GREENBERG. Or maybe it's a film that you don't so much like, or enjoy, but see as a reflection of people you know, and admire for its honesty in depicting a certain slice of life. Greenberg is a profoundly unsympathetic character, but I did care about his journey and find some satisfaction, if not redemption, in the final scenes of the movie. GREENBERG isn't as bitterly funny as THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, nor does it have as interesting a cast of characters. GREENBERG feels more like a character study - a closely drawn, almost claustrophobic, portrait of a man in a crisis. It felt real, and painful and sometimes infuriating. But I was happy to have spent time with its characters and bought into the relationships and narrative arc.
Baumbach is, like Nicole Holofcener, the great chronicler of our decadent, pampered lives. Of rich people who feel guilty for being rich, but want all that being rich gives them. Of emotionally unstable people self-sabotaging. Of people in their thirties and forties who refuse to grow up and take responsibility. Of emotional narcissism and the difficulty of connection. I am grateful that there is room for his kind of cinema, even if it is, by definition, a painful watch.
GREENBERG played Berlin 2010 and opened earlier this year. It is available on DVD and on iTunes.
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