Noah Baumbach’s films can be summed up by the screenplays for each. 2006’s debut The Squid and the Whale was a viciously spun tale, with sharp lines, an understated groove with painfully real dramatic pauses, 2008’s follow up Margot at The Wedding was a far more sub conscious and stuffy affair, with moments of black comedy which just didn’t ring true. Which brings us to his third feature Greenberg (co-written by wife Jennifer Jason Leigh who also appears in the film), a scatter gun of both movies, with awkward and bemusing results?
Ben Stiller plays forty year old Roger Greenberg a failed LA rock star with a chip on his shoulder. He now lives in New York working as a carpenter. At the start of the film Greenberg is house sitting for his brother Phillip while he and the family are away in Vietnam. The brothers have a very frosty relationship as several things go wrong during the curse of Greenberg’s stay. Cut off from the outside world the ex-rocker spends most of his time with long time best friend and former band mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans) who likewise has gone through drug rehab, but also has an ex-wife and child to worry about. Things pick up for Greenberg when he meets his brother’s personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) who starts driving him around and helping him, the pair start an on off relationship which is rocky from the start.
The problems are multiple. Starting with the script its one of those which is fairly flat and ponderous all the way through with the occasional peak, but nothing sustained. Instead of investing any insight into the characters we’re just given long pauses and close ups of Roger’s puzzled face. Also there’s a lack of humour, The Squid and the Whale at least had a loose wit to it even while giving you the hateful characters. Which brings me to the lead character who is just the nastiest, self obsessed, no hoper you would care to meet, trouble is Baumbach and Leigh try to make us like him but in a very half hearted way. For example his connection to family dog Mahler who is very ill, and who Greenberg and Florence drive from vet to vet making sure he gets the best treatment. So he takes pity on a defenceless dog, and that makes him a nice and interesting guy? There are many more clichés from there like what happens to Florence late on in the film, I won’t tell you, but it is the sort of thing filmmakers tend to pull out when the audience are in danger of nodding off. To add to this apart from having sympathy we are given no clue as to why the bright, young Florence would be attractive to or even spend time with Greenberg let alone give him second and third chances.
The odd thing is the performances are pretty much faultless. Stiller gives a quirky turn which is kind of like most his performances just a little restrained then his straight comedy roles. Ifans is just as warm, funny and deadpan as ever, sadly the part of Ivan is far too under written for a man of his talents. Greta Gerwig steals the film with a totally convincing and naturally painful turn, in a funny way she might have bigger problems than Greenberg, but by the end we know very little about the character which is a stumbling block in believeing in the relationship.
It seems Noah Baumbach may be a one trick pony; my advice to Miss Leigh is to get a divorce, because like Florence you can do much better.
DIRECTOR: NOAH BAUMBACH
CAST: BEN STILLER, GRETA GERWIG, JENNIFER JASON LEIGHT, RHYS IRFANS
RUNNING TIME: 107 MIN.