What happened to Noah Baumbach that made him write disaffected, unsuccessful, intellectual types so well? Trying to apply the biographical analysis to his films is difficult, because the similarities are there but they don't quite seem to match up with the man himself. Baumbach's latest film, Greenberg, is an excellent example of this. Greenberg features a socially impotent, hyper intellectual who is turning 41 in a few days. Baumbach is turning 41 soon, but has been a fairly reserved and intelligent speaker who's been successful with his films the last few years.
Maybe there was a very dark period in between Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale that inspired all this. Maybe he is projecting his own fears of failure or how others see him into his projects. Maybe he just happens to write intellectual jerks really well. Whatever the case may be, Greenberg is one of the smartest and most uncomfortable films that I've sat through all year. It also gives Ben Stiller the opportunity to show that he wasn't always "Ben Stiller, Funnyman Extraordinaire" (which I've never gotten sick of), but that he has had some potent acting chops since the beginning.
Before we even get to the cesspool of curmudgeon charisma that Roger Greenberg (Stiller) brings to the film, we spend some time getting to know Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig). She works for Roger's brother and has a haltingly strange emotional pattern because of a recent break up that she went through. Any contact with another man at this point feels like she's starting another relationship, and has the unfortunate character trait of trying to "fix" other people. Especially the one's that she's attracted to.
Enter Roger. He's recently left a mental hospital after having a nervous breakdown and is suspicious of the world and how it perceives him. Roger fits into a very specific category of Baumbach intellectuals. Some of them are successful, others (like Roger) never got over the fact that someone heard them say something a little insightful back years back. It's clear that Roger is an intelligent guy, but he uses every situation to make himself into a helpless little lamb that can act painfully snarky. Add a bit of alcohol, which he is either asking of or looking for any time he arrives in a new location, and you have yourself a potentially volatile mixture of personalities.
Another party in the gallery of broken dreams is Roger's old band mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans). Roger made a decision years ago that led to the dissolution of the band and crushed Ivan for many years. Now Ivan is married, clean, has a kid, and when Roger comes back into town has been recently kicked out of the house by his wife. Why Ivan puts up with this is hard to tell at first, but he seems to be trying to recapture something that he thought he lost a long time ago. Ivan acts as Roger's dumping ground for all his insecurities and rants, while we continue to watch and wonder if this case of arrested development will ever wise up to his own bullshit.
What plot there is consists entirely of watching Roger interact with these two and with the rest of modern civilization. At first it's an endurance test, as Roger is thoroughly unlikable and exists as a bit of a leech. Then puzzling, as we're wondering why Ivan and Florence decide to put up with him. Finally, just as it seems we've run out of reasons to keep watching, it grows curiously affecting as Roger learns to direct his anger again, and try and avoid being the coffeehouse prophet that we all know and dread.
Baumbach directs this with his usual sense of style and flair, which is to say that there's very little that is visually interesting in the movie. He's never been one for visual trickery, settling instead on a very simple style of "position actors - point camera - film dialogue". This might be a negative in other films, but this is a Baumbach movie, meaning that we are in for an auditory treat as we listen to some of the most acidic dialogue that he's written.
Part of the problem with Baumbach's last film, Rachel Getting Married, is that Rachel came off as a psychological supervillan sometimes. Roger never even comes close to reaching that point in Greenberg. He's a wounded smart guy, wondering why the world left him when he had the ability to go along with everyone all the time. When he decides to talk to anyone other than Ivan and Florence it's a disaster. While he treats them as grief buckets the rest of the world gets to hear exactly what he thinks about them - usually in long speeches filled with brief sentences designed to hurt as much as possible.
There's nothing in Greenberg that won't convert anyone to the Baumbach camp. If the hyper literate dialogue and flat direction didn't impress before, it won't impress now. But what's so impressive about Greenberg is it's ability to simultaneously critique the arrested development of modern comedies, as well as the emotionally stunted growth of this latest generation of entitled intellectuals that haven't contributed to anything for years. Saying I had a blast watching Greenberg would be a complete lie, but it's definitely worth my respect.
Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans.