Noah Baumbach’s “Kicking and Screaming” might very well be my favorite movie ever. I first saw it when I was basically at the same age as the characters in the film and really connected with these fresh-from-college brainy, literate dudes who acted high and mighty but were really adrift in the sea of life. The movie is funny, prickly, melancholy and extremely wordy and clever. Sadly, each subsequent Baumbach movie I enjoy less and less although I do love his wry contributions to Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” While I still watch “Kicking and Screaming” 3-4 times a year, I somehow lost my connection to Baumbach and his writer/director work and that bums me out. Yet when I caught wind of “Greenberg,” I became very, very excited.
“Greenberg” seemed to be a movie in Baumbach’s wheelhouse. It concerns a man named Roger Greenberg (Stiller) who is lost in life following some kind of mental breakdown. He heads from New York to L.A. to stay at his brothers house while he and his family are away on vacation and there, he strikes up a relationship with his brothers personal assistant Florence (Gerwig). Due to his generally lousy disposition he manages to alienate her, his lifelong friends and himself at every turn. The idea of Baumbach returning to the world of brutally honest misanthropic characters had me champing at the bit to see the film but now that I have, I just feel kind of blasé on the whole affair. That’s not to say the movie isn’t good, because it is very good and I did like it. I just wanted more of those awkward funny moments that come from Baumbach’s gift at character development. What I got instead was a kind of meditative view of a man struggling to maintain a sense of self in an increasingly non-private, hipster-cum-pop-culture world gone crazy. Was it my own high expectations for the film or is “Greenberg” just so-so? I suspect a little of both.
Stiller as Greenberg is quiet yet solid. There’s no big acting out moments and each scene is more about what Greenberg should do (and probably really wants to do) but is held back by some crazed sense of loyalty to an ancient pact he made to not be a phony. If Holden Caufield were a forty-something New York transplant stuck in L.A. with a bunch of messy haired, fedora wearing douche-bags, he would be Roger Greenberg. The character also lacks that little button in your head that tells you not to say what you’re thinking and when he goes off in the film, it’s never pretty. Yet that’s an issue because it’s ugly and mean and not terribly funny and maybe a little more humor would have gone a long way.
Greta Gerwig as Florence has fulfilled the promises about her acting ability that so many indie filmmakers have been saying about her for years. In short; that she’s going to be a big star someday and here, she simply nails it. You have to fall in love with the goofy, slightly bruised yet totally lovable Florence and you do. She’s the best kind of doormat in that she’ll do anything for anyone, you just have to love her a little bit. That’s all in Gerwig’s acting and to see her so flawlessly share the screen with Stiller made me smile. She’s also so sweet that when Greenberg is a dick to her (and trust me, he’s a total dick to her) it makes it impossible to side with him in any way. And that’s the point I’m sure, but somehow I didn’t find it as funny as I’d hoped and just found it all kind of sad.
Truth be told, I kind of agreed with every little act of resistance Greenberg puts up towards society’s groupthink and maybe that scared me a bit. At one point, Greenberg writes a letter to Starbucks complaining about how they’re almost too good at manufacturing culture and his basic complaint is that he’s fallen prey to it by drinking their coffee and liking the songs they play in their café’s. I can relate to that and I think most of us near or in our 40’s can relate as well. We were the last generation to be wary of “selling out” and as (some of us) have tried to hold onto that creed, it’s nearly impossible as at every turn, everyone cannot wait to sell out.
A world where The Ramones, Johnny Cash and The Sex Pistols have been co-opted to sell shitty merchandise is enough to drive anyone crazy, if you care. I care and Roger Greenberg cares. As we learn in the movie, Greenberg cares and has cared so much it basically drives all of his friends away and probably lead to his mental breakdown. Still, I don’t think you’re supposed to really relate to Stiller’s Greenberg and the fact I did might have scared or put me off a bit.
While “Greenberg” wasn’t as funny as I had hoped, I think it’s a great film and in the end is a return to form for Baumbach. It feels stupid saying that as “Margot at the Wedding” and “Squid and the Whale” garnered him massive critical praise, but those are films I never really clicked with. “Greenberg” clicked with me and I’m still thinking about it days after seeing it and find myself liking it even more.