Clement Greenberg was a prominent American art critic during the 1950’s and was among the first to champion the Abstract Expressionist movement of that time. Works in this vein by names like Gorky, De Kooning and Pollock brimmed with a defiant and anarchic buzz. A similar ethos is depicted but conversely manifested in the passive-aggressive nihilism of Greenberg, the latest effort by lauded auteur Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding), whose IMDB resume has become the lingua franca of Indie Americana.
The abstract expressionist sense of rebellion is traded for the pent up adolescent frustration as the audience follows Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a forty-something, former rock-musician-turned-carpenter with a penchant for writing scathing letters to companies or public institutions that annoy him. After a stint in a psych ward, Greenberg returns home from NYC to housesit his successful brother’s (Chris Messina) suburban Los Angeles home while he vacations in Vietnam with the wife and kids. His oft-stated modus operandi – and the film’s chief premise – is to accomplish ‘nothing’ with ‘no one.’
Greenberg is the man-child antihero archetype that quells the indie fix: a white, privileged, under accomplished and utterly unpleasant hero that has paved the way for gimmick comics like Demetri Martin. Like this self-deprecating group of funny persons, characters in Greenberg occasionally trade clever quips for monotonous incantations of meta-‘holier-than-thou’ prosaicness, which is expected when trying to find the allure of a mid-life crisis. Thankfully, Baumbach trades indie-hipster pretentiousness for the pervasive apprehension underscoring the film.
Stiller delivers a commendable performance, although he is visibly outside of his comfort zone. Due to the unnerving nature of Baumbach and co-conspirator Jennifer Jason Leigh’s (who co-produces and plays Greenberg’s college-era girlfriend) gloomy character study, the shock may have helped subdue his hyperbolized brand of comedy. Rhys Ifans plays Greenberg’s loyal best friend and former band mate Ivan Schrank with understated sincerity. Ivan mirrors Greenberg’s isolation and self-absorption by implying a desire for comfort following a failed marriage to which Greenberg never responds.
Greenberg takes place in an LA that lives beyond the Hollywood glitz, resulting in perfectly forgettable suburban backdrops sans a confused California winter that permits attire as wide-ranging as Greenberg’s mood swings. The film reeks of a jukebox favorite by fellow Angeleno Tom Waits while you’re alone and sober at a bar – it seems appropriate but you can’t put your finger on what feels off, at least not at first.
Unfortunately, James Murphy’s (LCD Soundsystem) stellar soundtrack could not inject life into the interplay between Greenberg and his brother’s personal assistant Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig). Granted, while the Baumbach brand calls for expectedly awkward exchanges, Stiller and Gerwig’s lack of onscreen chemistry is so severe that one would swear the entire scientific field reverted to some form of primitive alchemic process. The hopelessly entangled characters become a cardboard cutout of the ‘socially-tactless, anxiety-ridden-male-meets-quirky-free-spirited-younger-female’ relationship, an archetype of modern American indie films best exemplified by resident opuses Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Garden State. While Baumbach’s gifted dialogue easily detects nuances of the most commonplace chatter, there are times when Florence’s cutesy quirkiness borders on brain-dead and Greenberg’s rants suffer from an inspiration-deficit.
Much to Baumbach’s credit, his study of mediocrity maintains a surprisingly rapid pace. While Greenberg is a snapshot into the minds of painfully normal persons whose lives move slow enough to resemble snapshots of their own, Baumbach’s static camera and choppy edits illustrate dynamic scenes that are sometimes gratifying to watch, i.e., the giddiness of Stiller’s extolled party performance. Such dynamism works to combat the pedestrian goals of our protagonist. Even when the scene is still, Greenberg’s neurotic undertones make the viewer skittish.
Nevertheless, there are times when Greenberg tries too hard to mire itself in the dullness of routine and the mundane so as to peek introspectively into the modern, privileged urban condition and the humanity of the non-notables whose existence is cause célèbre only to other self-loathing persons that feed off negative vibes like vampires. Greenberg is the mumblecore character study of a man going through a mid-life crisis inescapably reverting to a kind of youth he can no longer relate to, as he impulsively explained to a group of cocky college students around the couch during the party scene. As an audience, we can only embrace Greenberg’s crisis via a sort of schadenfreude, particularly because he is so detestable.
Even more ironic is that Greenberg criticizes today’s youth for flaunting his own affliction – his self-absorption, how ignorant he is of others’ problems, apologizing only for ‘his side’ of things, and his unreasonable concern with sending letters to corporations and similarly unreachable humans, a tendency that ironically resembles the lighting of a candle for a Catholic saint or leaving a written prayer on a Jewish tombstone.
Greenberg’s point is further emphasized upon telling Ivan that “life is wasted on people” over dinner on his birthday, which provides another quirky way for the film to remind us of our status as social beings. For instance, although Greenberg left New York City to do ‘nothing’ by ‘himself’ in middle-of-nowhere LA, he compulsively contacted Ivan, established a bizarre dependency on Florence, was forced to take care of his brother’s ailing dog and the neighbors bathed in his pool every morning.
Greenberg is a balanced tragicomedy. Its dramatic flare-ups echo a PG-rated Bukowski or Solondz, and Baumbach’s use of contained hilarity has helped forge the ultra-deadpan comic ethos of an entire generation of indie filmmakers. For this we love Noah Baumbach, because he can infuse a story and its characters with the comic relief necessary from letting this film dissolve into soul-wrenching oblivion. However, we hate him for inspiring the Urban Outfitters School of humor and the uninspired garbage it typically secretes. In the end, Baumbach has made a somewhat enjoyable film about utterly normal people and how grueling getting through an orthodox life can be if you count breaths like novice-level zazen meditation.
Starring: Ben Stiller, Chris Messina, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Director: Noah Baumbach
Runtime: 107 Minutes
Distributor: Focus Features