Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sympathy for Mr. Misanthropy: Greenberg

Noah Baumbach's last three films have tended to stir up the same debate: How much is any audience member willing to spend with characters who have very obvious unlikeable qualities? I admit myself that I find his films often to be a tough sit, though all of them have normal to short running times. I am generally relieved when his films come to an end, though not necessarily in a bad way. It is clear that Baumbach has been working through some serious personal issues in this film and does not care to sugarcoat his characters' personal flaws by having them beg for your approval. This brings up an issue that has become more prevalent in the discussion of current films than it was, say, during the 1970's, which "Greenberg", in its cinematography and pacing, recall. How important is it to like the protagonists in our films?

The reason I say it is more of an issue now is that movies today are often populated by characters who are designed with certain obvious positive qualities such as being heroic, having a sense of humor, being completely selfless and sensitive to feelings from the opposite sex. These are done for mostly commercial reasons, as they operate under the notion that "likable" characters will make them more palatable to mainstream audiences. Who wants to spend two hours of your time with a character that you do not want to be around in real life? Compare this to the flawed anti-heroes that populated American films more frequently many years ago.

But, is the question as simple as that? There have been many examples in popular entertainment, the most obvious being the gangster genre, which often forces us to spend time caring about the lives of thuggish criminals. We often find that we want to live through characters like that because we get a certain thrill when we see them get away with things us boring people never would. Also, likability is often in the eye of the beholder. There are plenty of movies that are clearly designed to make the main characters likable that I often find completely detestable from watching the trailers alone.

Anything from the obnoxious leads from "Sex & the City" to pretty much most characters that happen to be played by Ryan Reynolds or Chris Evans. Sometimes, characters' likability can be so oversold that it tips over into smugness or simply reminds you of real life assholes who are so phony and transparent in their attempts to be all things to all people. It makes me wonder why it seems to bother so many that a character like Roger Greenberg is the focus of a film and, in turn, holding the director to some level of moral responsibility for his creation, as if writing an unlikeable person meant that he was condoning the character's actions.

"Greenberg" is the story of Roger Greenberg (played by Ben Stiller), who is a 40 year old New Yorker who housesits his more successful younger brother's home. There is not a lot whole lot of plot in this film, as it centers mostly around his start-and-stop relationship with his brother's assistant Florence (played by Greta Gerwig), as well as Greenberg catching up with old friends, particularly former bandmate Ivan (played by Rhys Ifans). It is also mentioned that Greenberg recently had a breakdown, resulting in a stay at a mental institution. Throughout the film, he is revealed to be a complete misanthrope, criticizing everyone and everything around him, while keeping emotional distance from those trying to reach out to him. At other times, his behavior becomes even less forgivable, as the peripheral characters are treated to his occasional outbursts or thinly-veiled putdowns.

The actions of Greenberg, or any of Baumbach's characters from previous films, are not necessarily heinous or even criminal. These are the actions of emotionally-stunted people who look to wound one another with words or relatively minor acts of pettiness. Now, taking into account that the lead character is played by a movie star which may cause some expectations (though I would never consider Stiller's mainstream persona to be likable), I still wonder why this character has bothered so many. I would theorize that his malcontent behavior combined with a life of missed opportunities and flat-out failures reminds one too many people of their own lives or, at least, someone very close to them. There's at least one Roger Greenberg in every family. Thus, the possibility of "Greenberg" offering any escape from their own reality goes out the window.

While I still think Baumbach has issues about how far he seems willing to push his characters' failures down your throat, I believe it is a mistake to say that this is all that the movie is attempting to do. As I suggested earlier, Baumbach is aware of how the character come across and is not merely indulging it or condoning, but actually treats them as if a specimen put under the telescope repeatedly. Yet, we cannot diagnose his problems with a few pat psychological diagnoses. Life combined with his personality has shaped his life, clearly not for the better. Sometimes, what others have done to him is unfair. Most of the time, Greenberg brings his misfortune upon himself, often reacting in a way to put off anyone in the vicinity of the dark cloud hanging over his head.

I do think it was brave for Ben Stiller (a last-minute replacement for Mark Ruffalo) to play this character, even though I do not think it was that much of a stretch. I have always found Stiller to come across as a fidgety, wired borderline asshole in movies even when he is supposed to be someone to root for. He is not exactly the warmest actor, which is put to better use in this film, as he seems nearly incapable of making a human connection that he could not ruin within minutes. This has probably some of the best work Stiller has ever done in his mostly underwhelming career. He has not had a good role since being part of Baumbach associate Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums". It had reached the point where merely seeing Stiller's face in any trailer was a guaranteed reason to avoid that movie altogether.

The real find of the movie is Greta Gerwig, who brings a wholly original natural quality to her performance as Florence. I have not seen any of the "mumblecore" movies, where I have read she stood out from the amateur performances that defined those films. Baumbach may have been inspired by them by casting her in this movie. Fitting along with the '70's vibe, he also lets Gerwig's style of acting featuring awkward pauses, as well as off-kilter line readings, dictate the rhythm of the picture. Gerwig is quite fantastic in the role, a rare original talent during a time when twenty-something actors come across as vapid and packaged. A scene where she sings along to a crappy Paul McCartney song evokes such raw sadness without resorting to wringing her emotions on screen like most other actors would have chosen to do.

There have been complaints that Florence is just a doormat, which she is to a certain extent, but I would think Gerwig's performance in the last half hour of the film would dispel the notion that her character does not begin to stand up for herself. If anything, Florence takes bigger steps than Greenberg to deal with the problems she brings upon herself.

There are times during this movie (and Baumbach's other work) when, admittedly, I asked myself what it is about this person that the director wants us to get? His films are quite a difficult viewing experience because the exposure of character flaws can be relentless, but I do think his best films, this and "The Squid and the Whale", show some halfway genuine attempts for these people to acknowledge their self-absorption even if they cannot quite control it. "Margot at the Wedding" actually did prove the complaint that Baumbach is indulging petty behavior for uncomfortable laughs to be true. The characters in that movie went from slightly irredeemable to completely unhinged over the course of that story.

What Baumbach does in "Greenberg" is that he always acknowledges how others react to Greenberg, watching the expressions on their faces as they slowly lose patience with him. You see this with the generally good-hearted Florence, Greenberg's former girlfriend Beth (played by co-story writer Jennifer Jason Leigh) and especially his former bandmate Ivan. The climactic party sequence also shows his effect on those outside his social circle. When Greenberg's niece throws a party, he winds up doing lines of coke and unleashes some condescending remarks on the twenty-something set, which they respond to by mocking him back in return. This leads to one of the best scenes of the film when Ivan comes reluctantly to join the party only to have Greenberg accuse him of screwing up a record deal from 15 years back. The tirade includes a laundry list of accusations, in which he seems to be dissecting himself without any level of self-awareness until he reaches the very end of it.

This brings us back to the original question posed in this piece. How important is it for me to like Roger Greenberg? The thing is there is not a whole lot to like about him, but it does not mean that I do not see some of myself, as well as other people, in him. I do think the degree to which the film assumes a character's point of view makes a difference as to whether it is indulging it. I generally thought the movie was standing outside Roger Greenberg, studying him from a distance. Although Florence or Ivan are supporting roles compared to his, I would say we identify with them more (or wish that we can).

What does it say that I still feel uncomfortable talking about "Greenberg" weeks after seeing it and have had a difficult understanding my reaction to it? I cannot help but admire the risks Baumbach took with this movie, even with the benefit of having a very bankable movie star in the lead role. Considering what has been yet another lackluster start to this movie year, I can look at "Greenberg" as if it had time traveled from over 30 years ago with its washed out color palette (great work once again by Harris Savides) plus its editing choices that draw out moments uncomfortably and can appreciate that nothing else out there now looks or feels like this movie. You do need to see this, even if the experience will leave you a little bruised.

Greenberg was seen at the BAM Rose Cinemas.


M.M. said...

'Greenberg' still resonates, after a viewing its opening weekend, much like some rare dysentery. As a hateful cinema exercise - 'Funny Games' with down vests, Karen Dalton name drops, and blissful female masochism - 'Greenberg' excels. But in no way is this a movie about 'adulthood', 'life', or 'people worth watching'. So hateful is Stiller - and fatally out of his acting depth (Mark Ruffalo would have provided actual humanity) - so uninteresting. I reveled in hating him and his stupid ways - at least Margot in Baumbach's other film had a vicious, icy intelligence that was interesting - that I had to laugh at any 'sensitive moment' or 'personal discovery'. Jennifer Jason Leigh's career-long fascination with baroque female self-hatred reached its apotheosis here; are we supposed to believe Greenberg and his twit mate are GROWING in that final scene? Was that ending supposed to be HOPEFUL? Run, girl, run. Or, stab, girl, stab. This movie had a wide hole in it - not unlike 'Little Miss Sunshine'. Had no one in that film heard of Jonbenet Ramsay? Was it a parallel reality of our world? Did it require a cross-country trek to learn child beauty pageants are evil? Similarly, in this film, why is nobody responding at appropriate levels to the pissy gargoyle that is Stiller?
This failed experiment of an 'indy movie' must be stopped; it is little more than an 'industry insider' attempt at the regional, 'little' mumblecore approach, except it is neither.
I don't need to 'like' lead characters but the movie that these drippy characters inhabit needs to shine, be brilliant, be insightful. Watching these creeps and victims in 'Greenblarrgh' 'get it together' is...old news.

Jason Bellamy said...

I saw this movie several weeks ago and hoped to review it, but my schedule isn't allowing that to happen.

I agree with you that how we feel about a character shouldn't affect how we feel about the film itself, even though -- as you observe -- unlikeable characters can make viewing difficult.

I think Squid and the Whale is a modestly great film, in large part because there's no doubt that the film recognizes the childishness and asshole-ish antics of the adults in the film, even if the characters themselves might not. Margot, on the other hand, is I think total trash -- offensive not because its characters are unlikeable but because their antics are in no way convincing ... all their awfulness is contrived, morphing constantly to meed the needs of the plot.

Greenberg falls somewhere in the middle. I liked it very much in stretches, and yet in other places Baumbach's writing reminds of James Cameron's. Characters say things just to say things that serve the moment but have no carryover effect. The numerous tossed-off one-liners are so awkward that the characters might as well break the fourth wall and stare into the camera. They don't fit.

In those moments, it's as if Baumbach tips his hand. What he reveals, I'm not quite sure, but it's hard to come away feeling that Baumbach is fully committed to his characters. Indeed, at times he seems to shock for the sake of shocking, using his characters like tools for ... I'm not quite sure what.

Maybe if there'd never been a Margot at the Wedding I wouldn't have watched this film with my finger hovering over the bullshit-alert button. I don't know.