Twitchy Ben Stiller seems out of place.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Mark Duplass
Goes well with: Margot at the Wedding, Metropolitan, Hannah Takes the Stairs
It's best if I lead by stating that I don't enjoy Noah Baumbach's films nearly as much as I wish I did. They seem to be directed at people just like me, occasionally pretentious liberals who enjoy wry insights into the mild tragedy of being privileged and white in the United States in the new millennium. Hey, wait, is that a self-conscious observation? An examination of those nagging feelings we all have that perhaps we're the only ones who don't get it? Sure it is—because that's what Baumbach's films are about: realizing how screwed up we are when we finally face up to exactly who we are. It's heady stuff, but like Baumbach's other films, it leaves me cold.
Here's the gist: Ben Stiller is Roger Greenberg, a cranky 40-year-old from New York staying at his brother's home in L.A. while he recovers from a wee breakdown. He's got the house to himself while his family takes a six-week vacation, and he's got old friends to see and complaint letters to write. Roger is a complainer, the sort of dude who always needs to tell everyone how everything upsets him. Bad experience on an airline? Write a letter. Latté at Starbucks sucked? Write a letter. Yes, Roger, who tells everyone he's just doing nothing for a while, lives to kvetch—and not just about corporations or infrastructure. He's an unhappy guy who drinks to excess and has an almost impossible time understanding his friends' struggles with adulthood, marriage and children.
In fact, he's much more comfortable around Florence (mumblecore goddess Greta Gerwig), his brother's assistant, who quickly hops into the sack with him and takes all the abuse he can dish out. She's just 25, freshly out of college, and still doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. In other words, she's like most 25-year-olds, and Greenberg has far more in common with her than with his peers. His ex, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach's real-life spouse), is divorced with children; his best friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), is going through a separation with a wife Greenberg hates; and Beller (Mark Duplass, another mumblecore vet), who used to be in a band with Greenberg and Ivan, has grown wealthy directing TV shows, a vocation Greenberg looks down upon.
For Greenberg, doing nothing is something of a struggle. It's all he can do to get through the day without pissing off everyone around him. Stiller's fairly entertaining as the curmudgeonly lead, but it's a tricky thing to make a film about someone who's intentionally unlikable, and when it's done right, that person is nevertheless someone you'd want to hang out with. Greenberg's just a downer, and even though Gerwig is a charmer, it's hard to see why she'd be drawn to him. Englishman Ifans gets the film's most interesting character, a former musician who's learned to make the most of what he's got even if it's less than what he had once hoped for. In many ways, he's Greenberg's conscience because he's the one struggling to embrace, as he says, the life he didn't plan on.
And that, truly, is Baumbach's message, as well as Greenberg's fight: to accept the fact that things don't turn out the way we'd hoped. That's something real and true, a fact we should be reminded of regularly.
Why does Greenberg leave me so cold? I love the message but not the messenger, and perhaps it's because, in Baumbach's hands, Greenberg is another dramedy of manners, passive-aggressively dishing out advice rather than doing it sincerely. Stiller's tetchy, twitchy neurotic is poorly suited to the director's very specific style, and it often feels as though he's in a different film than the rest of the players. He's awkward, but so is the film, and like Greenberg himself, it feels pretentious and self-conscious.
One thing is certain, however: The next time I'm tempted to e-mail the manager of a Starbucks to complain that they've run out of cookies earlier in the day than they should, I'll think of Greenberg, and restrain myself.
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