10th Belfast Film Festival review
As a director of his own material, Noah Baumbach’s films have never felt entirely comfortable in their own skin – something that may be partly down to the subject matter. A fine movie with a brave, open account of the damage that broken families can cause, as well as being delightfully witty, there was something however a little bit Woody Allen about The Squid and the Whale – if not in the subject (Allen’s only attempt to take a younger or post-adolescent viewpoint resulting in the singularly unmemorable Anything Else), then certainly in its manner of using New York locations and in terms of delivery. Margot at the Wedding, on the other hand, was a fiercely self-conscious attempt to push the dysfunctional family material towards an overly-talky, more theatrical Ingmar Bergman-style (again not unlike Woody Allen’s efforts in that area), with its associated echoes of Strindberg and Chekhov, that felt wholly inappropriate outside of a European and specifically Scandinavian context. With Greenberg however, Baumbach falls back upon a style of filmmaking that feels better suited to the material than his previous two films, getting back to some of the style and content of his debut feature Kicking and Screaming and advancing upon it. It’s consequently probably the director’s best film yet.
Perhaps surprisingly, there’s something of an indie mumblecore “doing nothing deliberately” influence in Greenberg, if not in any stylistic approach, then certainly at least with regards to the handling of the content. The presence here of Greta Gerwig (LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Humpday), confirm this impression and they certainly seem more appropriate for this subject than Nicole Kidman or Jack Black. The characters in Greenberg might not be young adolescents apprehensively approaching adulthood, struggling to come to terms with a newfound responsibility where your needs aren’t paramount and you actually have to take other people’s feelings into consideration, but now older and having faced setbacks in their attempts to make that leap to maturity, they likewise find themselves in another awkward in-between phase, fearful of moving forward, but unable to look back. For 40 year-old Roger (Ben Stiller), the fish-out-of-water sensation is the most clearly pronounced. Recently discharged from hospital after what seems like a mental breakdown, he takes up residence at the house of his brother in LA, Phillip having gone away with his wife for a six week holiday in Vietnam, leaving Roger to look after their house and the dog Mahler. Having spent a long time living in New York, the return to LA and the lifestyle he encounters there unsettles the rather intense Roger.
As contact with old friends reveals however, Roger is not the only one dissatisfied with life and uncertain of where they want to go. In addition to an uncomfortable meeting at a party with his ex-girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now with children, (in fancy dress, Roger observes, while the adults dress like children), he meets a few other old friends, some of them members of a band they used to be in together, some still resentful about Roger blowing a potential record deal back then that could have changed their lives. One friend however, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), currently residing in a motel with time on his hands while he tries to work through a break-up with his wife, tries to help Roger reintegrate into society and find some sense of normality. The opportunity presents itself when Roger meets Florence (Greta Gerwig), the babysitter and helper for the Greenberg family. Lacking direction and the nerve to move on after the recent break-up of a relationship, Florence has just started dating again and is finding the whole process difficult to judge. Unsatisfied with one-night stands, she is however uncertain about how to start off the relationship process again, and although attracted to Roger, is unable to make the necessary connection to someone who is older, resistant and fearful of anything new in his life.
For anyone who is immune to the deceptive whimsy of Baumbach’s script for Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic or has failed to be convinced by the bitter humour of family dysfunction in the writer/director’s own previous talk-heavy films, Greenberg probably isn’t going to make them a convert. There is very little here in terms of plot, and to be honest, there’s not much complexity here in terms of characterisation either due to Baumbach feeling the need to over-write and have everyone express vocally the nature of the loneliness, isolation and the personality issues that make them reluctant to “embrace the world [they] never wanted”, not least in Roger’s regressing-to-adolescence behaviour at a party thrown by his brother’s daughter. Roger’s writing letters of complaint to every business who fails to deliver on its promises while openly contemplating to whom he should write to complain about how his own life has turned out may not be the most subtle way to express his difficulties with the world either, but at least all of these occasions give rise to some laugh-out-loud, funny-awkward situations, with Stiller excellent in his familiar manic-intensity semi-comic mode. More importantly, and in contrast to the unlikeable, egotistical, whining, extreme characters of Margot at the Wedding, there’s a touching sweetness to the flaws and vulnerabilities of all the characters in Greenberg that makes it not only a pleasure to spend some time with them, but makes it impossible for viewers of a certain age not to empathise with them and care about the outcome of their lives. It looks like Noah Baumbach has also found a new direction himself in the process.