Thursday, October 21, 2010

Film #135: Greenberg

I know, it's a generational thing--obviously a by-product of getting older. But I never thought it would happen this way. I never thought no one under 25 would know of or give a flying flip about the things I grew up with. (And here I turn into this silly curmudgeon, dammit.) When I was growing up, I totally knew about all the things my parents loved. I watched The Andy Griffith Show, Father Knows Best, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Leave It To Beaver. Even though it was the 1970s, I was part of a clan that respected the adoration of the late 50s/early 60s--my parents' teen years--through American Graffiti, Happy Days, National Lampoon's Animal House, The Hollywood Knights, The Buddy Holly Story, and Grease (most of which were huge hits, so I know it wasn't just me being a smart kid). When I watched 1974's Earthquake at eight years old, I respected the fact that greyhairs Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and Lorne Greene and were stars right alongside groovalicious Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree and Victoria Principal. I couldn't get enough of Roy Orbison, The Kinks, The Platters, and The Everly Brothers; hell, I was even into classical music at that age.

So I thought, when I turned 30 (which was in 1996), that kids would be digging on 70s-era Elton John, Bee Gees, Boston and Joni Mitchell, right alongside The Fugees, Garbage, Flaming Lips and Alanis Morrisette. I was fully expecting Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman to remain box-office draws alongside Will Smith, Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy. And I thought 15-year-olds then would be tuning into All In The Family, The Bob Newhart Show, and M.A.S.H. when they got home from school.

But it didn't go down like that. I hadn't counted on time speeding up, and new things taking over again and again, with the 24-hour-cable-channel obsession for novelty shoving the merely mature into the impossibly ancient. When I realized this was the newborn way of things, it broke my heart. When I mentioned Devo one time, some kid went "Who?" (a snobbishly faux-inquisitive response that's still used to make us "oldsters"--yeah, we're so fucking decrepit at 30--feel like outmoded dopes). I felt older at 30 than the 30-year-olds that I knew when I was 10 surely felt. And I felt cheated and angry, because I was no longer allowed to talk to most younger people--who are always, no matter the era, yes, understandably struggling to forge their own identities--without feeling like I should be walking with a goddamn cane. Thank heavens I at least was there at the Internet's outset.

Greenberg is a movie that exudes the sensation of being 40 and lost in the this now-2010-world. Ben Stiller's Roger Greenberg is a man who's sad that his reference about Albert Hammond's one-hit wonder "It Never Rains In Southern California" is lost on a new friend. When he mentions it to his brother's assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), she responds with an awkward silence, and you can feel that spurring him on to a bottle of whiskey (which he puts on to a to-get list, along with ice cream sandwiches, when she asks him if he wants anything from the grocery store).

I have absolutely never felt like a movie had opened up my brainbox, peered in, glopped its mits into the remains, and slathered it onscreen as I have with Noah Baumbauch's Greenberg. It's MY movie. I feel protective of it, like I did with SCTV way back in 1977 when no one else I knew got or watched it. I think it's a movie that heartbeats on where the forgotten tadpoles are coming from--you know, that tiny clan called X, smooshed in between the overwhelming Boomers and Ys. Baumbach is my age, so, given his newest movie (after The Squid and the Whale's excellence and the muddy Margot at the Wedding), I'm now even more convinced he knows abandonment intimately, and is bound to paint its details.

Now, here it is, eight months after Greenberg's quiet theatrical release, and I'm even more convinced that no one gives a good goddamn about us Xers, seeing that no one's giving the film it due. Yep. We've been thrown on the scrap heap. We don't count, because we're part of neither movement that buffets us fore and aft. And, since we grew up with Watergate, Mad Magazine, and Wacky Packages, we can't be sold to, so we can just all go and get fucked. I never thought I was going to see a movie like Greenberg. When it arrived, and was over, I was ecstatic. But everyone else--that is, the paying public--seems to see it as a complete bore, a mystery. Greenberg stands as a self-fulfilling prophecy printed in gleaming Cinemascope.

Roger Greenberg's often inert but, though he almost brags about dropping out of life, I really don't think he wants to be doing nothing. He still engaged enough to compose complaining letters to newspapers and corporations (and gets excited when one is printed in the paper; there's no sign of a computer anywhere in Greenberg). He had a band, back in his "hellraising" days, called The Magic Marker. They were on the verge of getting signed, but Roger (the band's songwriter) didn't feel that the company signing them would do them right. It was, perhaps, a punk move. Screw those guys if they can't go our way. He didn't see that selling out would become everybody's goal once the 90s landed. And so the band--including his best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans)--withered away. Ivan went on to battle alcoholism, to get into computer programming, and to start a family with a woman with whom, when Greenberg reconnects with him in L.A., is divorcing him (even though Ivan is obviously engaged with being a father to their son Victor). And the other former band members continue to rake Roger over the coals for giving up so soon. But Roger thought he was doing the right thing; he thought there'd be other opportunities. But no other shots were imminent, so he escaped to the East Coast, retreating into a place far from media: a construction start-up based in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Baumbach's film, like many great movies, begins quite unlike you might think, though. Its first minutes center in on Greta Gerwig's Florence, a 26-year-old woman making a living tending to Roger's spoiled, awful, wealthy brother (Chris Messina). You can immediately tell the guy's an ass because of the subtly pissy way he tosses a plastic bag after Florence tells him she couldn't find those chocolate-covered rice balls he likes, even after going to two places. This is only one of her frantic duties for the family before they take off on a too-hep vacation in Vietnam. He tells Florence, as she deals so sweetly with his two kids and his obviously condescending wife, that his brother Roger will be taking care of the house and their German Shepard, Mahler, while they're gone. She takes this on as another task (even though she hasn't been paid in three weeks and later has to borrow money from her best friend; and then Mama Greenberg has the gall to gently scold her for not reminding them to pay up).

Florence, in her warm ragged clothes, is a lovely person. She adores her job, and the people she works for, and clearly likes the kids so much that she's willing to overlook all of her employers' terrible attributes (you can tell she's been unfairly chewed out by them before). Her opening exchange with the kids, who obviously dig her, makes it clear that she's good at her job now, and that she succeeds in anticipating whatever peccidillos the Greenbergs might spring on her. But somehow Florence can't find anybody who loves her.

But how could one not love her, as she tries to charm her way into traffic? (The movie's meaningful first line, as she drives, is: "Are you gonna let me in?") It tears you apart when, at a party, she tells a soon-to-be one-night-stand "I was thinking this morning that I've been out of college now for as long as I was in, and nobody cares if I get up in the morning." She gets some play, but it means nothing, even though she touches the man's back as he sleeps, as if to say "Remember me?"

We see Greenberg from behind at first, as he calls Florence, alarmed that next-door neighbors are using his brother's pool. The first time we see his face he (also significantly) tells Florence, who's wants to come by, "Yeah, I'll be here." And then, Roger and Florence have their first moments together, with Florence showing yet more of her nurturing side by fawning over Mahler (laughing, as she gives him a treat, "His tongue's so scratchy"). This is not meet cute, though. It's beautifully meet semi-ugh. (I love this one pregnant pause in the conversation, followed by Florence concluding with "Cool.") Still, though, you can feel that both are needy, nerdy and funny, and so they're intrigued with each other not without cause.

Roger very much seems uncaring later on in the film. In fact, he can be a downright a-hole. But, in these first scenes, we see he's not such a bad guy. He dutifully takes care of Mahler; he notices a door is sticking so he whittles it down, and he begins building the dog a master bedroom. He bravely tries out the pool, even though he doesn't know how to swim. And he notices there's a problem when Mahler is unresponsive to a frisbee throw. This worries him, and he calls Florence in to help. He doesn't even mind when his brother, from continents away, slaps him with the sort of abuse Roger is probably used to (and has often probably deserved).

In baby steps, Roger tries to reconnect with a past he'd discounted, even though he's seen as a solipsistic cad. He begins with Ivan, to whom he's still tenuously friendly. For Greenberg, no time has passed, because nothing important has happened to him. Or at least nothing that he wants to talk about. He's suffered a nervous breakdown, and has been hospitalized. He's had no major relationships since his breakup with an old girlfriend who hardly remembers their time together (Jennifer Jason Leigh, excellent in one key scene, who also serves as co-storywriter and co-producer with husband Baumbach here). And his construction business in Bushwick has folded ("It's political" is his only remark about that).

Meanwhile, Florence seems lost without her daily duties. She has a vague desire to sing, and does so with pluck to a nearly empty house. And she has a secret. And she seems open to starting up a strange dalliance with Greenberg that's studded with Roger's nervous outbursts and discomfort with humanity (this results in a couple of sex scenes that're absolutely without comparison; they're interrupted and ghastly). But she finds him surprising, and vulnerable, and that keeps her going. For many viewers, this seems unlikely, even unimaginable. But Gerwig makes this work, because we can tell her Florence is affectionate for those things that need affection (at the vet, she pets Mahler with her red-socked foot). I have to confess: I'm in love with Gerwig as a result of this role. I think I fell for her at first sight, as Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner" plays over the credits, and as she smiles slightly as we admire at her exquisite profile. But I think what really did it for me was seeing her alone at home, drunk after a Greenberg snub, dancing goofily to and singing along with Paul McCartney's "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey." I wanted to hug her--or Florence--forever and ever. Make no mistake: this IS the best performance of the year. Gerwig is outstanding in every way, in every frame. She is a star, for sure.

Also, of course, there's no question that Roger Greenberg is the role that Ben Stiller was conceived to play. Greenberg's the logical outgrowth of his directorial debut, the similarly crestfallen Gen X touchstone Reality Bites. Looking underfed and slouched, with that very non-L.A. puffy vest on throughout, he's a man who doesn't know where he belongs ("I can't find a movie I wanna see at the fucking multiplex," he complains, "and when I go into Starbuck's, I hear music I actually like"). Greenberg may have grown up in Los Angeles, but he's obviously more New York-flavored (he hates that his friends consider him uber-Jewish, since his mother was not so--just like Stiller himself, whose mother is the Irish Anne Meara, but whose father's the Jewish Jerry Stiller). And, plus, there's that generational thing. Later in the film, Greenberg finds himself hosting a 20-something party, snorting his first line of coke in years, wanting to listen to perfectly suitable Duran Duran (while others scream for AC/DC or Korn) and standing as a curio to the bucks who surround him. Here we get a bald-faced punch in the gut to the group that calls itself "The Perfect Generation." It's one of the most quotable bits of dialogue in the film, and I bet Baumbach worked long and hard to condense his feelings into byte-size:

The thing about you kids is that you're all kind of insensitive. I'm glad I grew up when I did cause your parents were too perfect at parenting--all that baby Mozart and those Dan Zanes songs; you're just so sincere and interested in things. There's a confidence in you guys that's horrifying. You're all ADD and carpal tunnel. You wouldn't know agoraphobia if it bit you in the ass, and it makes you mean. You say things to someone like me who's older and smarter with this light air. I'm freaked out by you kids. I hope I die before I end up meeting one of you in a job interview.

Greenberg doesn't feel any more at home with people his own age. He breaks out into a sweat when Ivan takes him to a former band member's party, populated by the romping kids of his schoolmates. Even with Ivan--who's played with exquisite drained sadness by Ifans--Roger seems to be unaware that adulthood has crept between them. Nothing drives this home more than their get-together on Greenberg's birthday (perhaps the most baldly funny scene in the picture) or their relationship-ripping final exchange. To his credit, up to this point, Ifans' Ivan is a shaggy Superman of understanding, dolefully withstanding his friend's neurosis, thoughtlessness, meanness (which he, too, finds humorous, I think), and avoidance of talking about all things important. (The casting and photography here is outstanding; the camera has a purposefully hard time keeping the short Stiller and the towering Ifans in the same frame.)

I guess a lot of viewers out there don't like Roger Greenberg because they don't want to know him. Or maybe it's because they don't want to BE him, and often, in movies, we only wanna see people up on screen that we wanna be. But then how would one explain all these anti-heroes out there that people of all post-60s generations love--Travis Bickle, or Tony Soprano, or Michael Corleone? Of course, these are violent people--people who command power through a trigger squeeze. Greenberg has no power at all. In fact, I don't think Greenberg's ever been in the same building with a gun. The guy doesn't even drive, though he's an expert at telling other people how to do so (as a non-driver myself, I see this as a positive trait).

So I'm left to conclude that Greenberg (and Florence, too) strike some even discerning filmgoers as lethargic creations because the characters seem to have abdicated their efficacy. They're not rich; they're not even trying to be rich. And they're almost okay with not being close to happy. They're lucky to make it through each day. Maybe THIS is what offends so many people about Greenberg ("Who wants to see a movie about people who've given up?")

But not so fast. Roger and Florence, they're still in the ring, even though their punches hardly ever land. That's exactly what I love about Baumbach's movie--it follows Roger and Florence as if it were the SALT II talks between generations, and it's passionate about these flawed schnooks. This is the writer/director's most accomplished, insightful, empathetic script. It's a movie with hope, but not too much of it (it never becomes a picture Greenberg would write a snide Letter to the Editor against--by the way, Greenberg's letters are the only element of the film I don't buy). This is also Baumbach's most visually on-target film (thanks to the sharp widescreen photography by the always reliable Harris Savides, and also to the accurate, never overdone production design by Ford Wheeler). I could go on and on, scene by scene, and tell you exactly why I love about nearly everything about it--Lindsay Lohan, Creamsicles, Sealey matresses, Arnold Palmers, Gung Ho, the Flash, a shared Corona, and James Murphy's gentle score--but I think you get the idea. Greenberg is my favorite movie of 2010, and I don't think anything else is gonna come anywhere near its richness.


alfred said...

Would you argue that he doesn't find the need to have a gun and kill anyone because he's already 'killed'/destroyed the lives of the ones closest to him when he resisted the contract?

Dean Treadway said...

Well, he's certainly killed his fair share of relationships, you're right. In that way, he's an expert marksman.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Greenberg also struck a tone with me, another 40-something who is rebelling against the need to always be doing something.

I agree with you about the letter writing being the one part of Greenberg's persona that was ill fitting. I see the need for the filmmakers to use it as a substitute voice-over exposition for Greenberg's quirks, but I would have rather seen those moments filled with Greenberg silently doing nothing, letting Ben's intensity do the speaking.

Dean Treadway said...

Still, I liked those moments, because they signified Greenberg's choice to stay in contact with the outside world. I only wish they had been treated only slightly differently.