(Noah Baumbach, US, 2010)
A relatively low-key and meandering effort from Baumbach, who uses Ben Stiller to great effect and some amount of irritation. Unlike the laser-guided nastiness exhibited by the characters in his previous film, Margot at the Wedding, here the barbs are more haphazard and even seem at times to be halfhearted, as if Stiller's Greenberg really can't bother too much with anything, even being an asshole.
The cast is strong across the board. It's the best work Stiller has done in a while, even besting his amusing turn in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. Rhy Ifans deserves special note for his marvelously low-key depiction of Greenburg's closest, and therefore most harried, friend. Greta Gerwig shows promise, but she's poorly served by the script (and the director), who reduce her character to a series of shleppy tics. Harris Savides, one of the best DPs working today, again produces exemplary work which fits the mood of the piece perfectly and yet has a subtle, stylish flair with light. Basically, all of the elements are strong to very strong, with the only notable exception being the writing. It's been said before that a director's number one job is the management of tone - the maintaining of an emotional through-line that grows organically out of the story, rather than being imposed in an arbitrary or sloppy way. This is something Baumbach does very well, even in his less successful films. It's difficult to talk about tone with great precision, but it's closely related to that mysterious extra element that makes art more than the sum of it's parts. Because it can't be reduced, it's hard to tell exactly how it's done - it's an effect produced in the aggregate, the combination of things that only appear more complex the closer you look. This isn't some kind of dodge - tone can be discussed, but when discussing the contribution of the director to this, is usually where the term "instinct" gains the most relevance.
And Baumbach has good instincts. He knows how to keep Greenberg from becoming too shrill and repulsive - understands how to keep the audience interested in this jerk, but still aware of the fact that he is, by any measure, a jerk. But of course, viewers invest because it's clear that Greenberg himself is aware of his jerkitude, even if his awareness is merely nascent. He's a rebel without a cause, or, if you like, without a clue - the protagonist in what can be interpreted as a vaguely po-mo riff on the Brando's role in movie of the same title. It's just that Greenberg knows he's not a nice guy, and it bothers him, as does his general fecklessness, even if he occasionally gets away with suppressing that knowledge. At one point, a character asks him "what are you fighting against," to which Greenberg responds "what have you got?" This little nod comes in the midst of one of the film's weaker scenes, in which Greenberg hangs out and does drugs with young college-types - basically, kids half his age, and it doesn't really do much more than remind people how much things have changed, and also how little. There are still misfits, but the major exeption seems to be that they are now of all ages, and that we seem to be living in a culture in which its possible to get older without ever growing up. This isn't all that new, society-wise, but maybe the fact that this can be seen as admirable or attractive is.
And to plenty of people, it isn't attractive. Nor should it be, necessarily. But its to Baumbach and Stiller's credit that Greenberg the character receives any sympathy from the audience, or at least our interest, however prurient. That interest varies, and it's in the variance that Baumbach's limits as a writer are evident. He's very good at writing quip-filled, psuedo-naturalistic dialogue that contains jokes and character material without being too obvious or showy, except when he isn't. Greenberg contains too many of these moments, where the characters are a little too on point, or not enough - moments like the previously mentioned post-teen party, as well as Greenberg's impulsive decision to accompany two of the party-goers to Australia. It's silly, and its unnecessary, and it makes the filmmaking seem lazy and unfocused. Because at the end of the day, Greenburg isn't really saying all that much - it's quite straightforward in its thematic concern with the weary-but-still-beating heart of the bitter hack. It has neither the entrenched satire and quiet redemption of Alexander Payne's best stuff, nor the parallel-universe impressionism of Wes Anderson. It's a clever movie, and an often entertaining one, but it seems as if Baumbach wanted it to be something more, and he didn't quite bring it there.