Sunday, 11 July 2010
In the second of this week's catch-up cinema-trips, I took a look at the (relatively) new one from Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson's buddy and director of "The Squid and the Whale" with Jeff Daniels and Jesse "The Michael Cera it's Okay to Not be Sick of Yet" Eisenberg.
Another agreeably snide and haphazard character study with a sprinkling of compassionate heart here and there, "Greenberg" tells the tale of a neurotic former musician recovering from a breakdown by house-sitting for his brother. He forms a tentative, clumsy bond with his brother's personal assistant, potters about the house, assumes responsibility for the family's ailing dog, talks to some old bandmates and eventually has a party. That's about it.
This is one of those films that frankly revels in its representation of mundanity. We are involved in the film only as observers of character, never really feeling empathy towards the people we are studying or becoming emotionally attached to them. Sure, it is entertaining to watch such well observed and performed characters, but many will find the apparent lack of plot or emotion to be hard going.
What keeps "Greenberg" watchable is the performances and the subtle wit. Ben Stiller, as the titular bundle of insecurity and passive/aggressive rage, delivers the kind of performance which would have won him an Oscar if the film had any kind of saccharine redemptive arc for people to latch onto. Greenberg is nervy, annoying, self-absorbed, confused and entirely believable. It may sound like the kind of character that Stiller could ham up to astronomical levels, but he always manages to keep his performance grounded in understatement. The only slight blip was towards the end when Greenberg gets coked up with James Franco's brother and Stiller reminds a little too much of a similar scene in "Starsky & Hutch".
Having only previously seen her brief, sassy appearance in "House of the Devil", I was surprised by Greta Gerwig's turn as Florence; she has a peculiar charm and eccentric honesty that will either make her one to watch for the future or will doom her to a lifetime of lo-fi quirkathons. She holds up well here, though.
An admirably subdued Rhys Ifans shows up as Greenbergs former bandmate, and co-writer and director-spouse Jennifer Jason Liegh puts in a nice two-scener as an old flame.
It is Stiller's show, however, and he runs all the way home with it, using subtle suggestion of internal change rather than mannered, barnstorming announcements.
There's not really that much more to say. Greenberg is a superficially simple concoction, with some subtle profundity to be discovered through the determination to stick with it. Though there are a lot of "Office/Curb Your Enthusiasm" style cringe-chuckles, it never quite reaches the heights of black-comedy which "Squid and the Whale" scraped, and ultimately sits somewhere in the vicinity of that film and Alexander Payne's output such as "About Schmidt" or "Sideways".