Greenberg: Pain, no gain
A shrink told me once that I have trouble living in the present, so I live in the past, because I never really lived it in the first place — you know?
I love that line, but…but. So much of the Greenberg script, and of the character himself, is an excuse for Noah Baumbach to share all the accumulated bitchy insights about upper-class Angelenos or "the youngs and their iThings" he's stored up over the years, but presumably couldn't let fly at dinner parties, lest they end friendships or get him punched in the dick.
Not that I don't relate. Writers do that. We hoard sangria-drenched zingers we fired off about jazz pianists, and grand unifying theories about guy nicknames and sexual competence; we wrap them up gently, and we take them out later and put them in the mouths of characters we don't need you to like. Baumbach is good enough at it that I don't mind, most of the time, but here, he's in that space he got in with Margot at the Wedding where it's all acidic truth-telling, with nothing appealing or warm to root for. Apparently the audience is to side with Florence, but whether it's Greta Gerwig's acting choices that turn Florence into a stoned child or the character as written, it's a bit much, with the sweaters and the reedy folk songs and the puppets. Merritt Wever is onscreen maybe five minutes total as Gina, and I couldn't stop thinking, "Why can't I watch the movie where she's Florence?" It would have given Greenberg more snap, more fire. A successful portrayal of co-stagnation isn't always more than…that.
Baumbach's department isn't really verve, however, which, again, is fine, and he can distill specific emotional sensations perfectly. The scene between Greenberg and Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, flawlessly fidgety) where he's all "so, you and me? enh? enhhh? amirite?" and she's all, "Heh. …Wait, really? Wow. No. Check please" is brutal, and so precise. The story is about a feeling that everyone you thought you still knew has gone on to other lives, and you're still in the old one, sitting as casually as possible on the porch, hoping someone will drop by and see how nice you've kept the place. But they never come; they don't even remember where it is. Greenberg gets both sides of that, the porch and the asking directions.
Can you hang a feature on that? I suppose you can; I didn't get bored. But I didn't like either of the main characters, and I don't care for "because they need each other and nobody else will" as a reason to pair them up. I could have lived with the mental-hospital backstory as a "reason" for Greenberg's unmediated hostility and defensiveness, but then there's a coked-up rant, and together, it's too much. He's building a doghouse for his brother's ailing shepherd, and he's writing snail-mail letters to various papers and companies; pick one, don't use both. (Pick the latter. I've spent the bulk of the last 18 months with contractors underfoot; I will know a good carpenter imitation. Ben Stiller's is not that.)
Stiller is good in the role, doesn't try to cheat it. Greenberg is put together well. It's not a waste of time. But Baumbach needs to meet a few new people whom he actually enjoys and feels fondness for, and write at least one character based on one of those people, somehow, for his next project, because his contempt for and pessimism about his characters have gotten heavier and harder to sit through. I respect his exactitude, but mirthless laughter at a character's shame or discomfiture is not genuine levity. Give us a fluffy kitten or a wedding (…not that one) or something.
Tags: a rain of anvils Ben Stiller Greta Gerwig Jennifer Jason Leigh Merritt Wever movies Noah Baumbach