d. Noah Baumbach / 2010 / USA / 107 mins
Viewed at: Cinema 1 @ Barbican (London, UK)
Certain sections of mainstream US Indie (if you’ll pardon the rather vague oxymoron), have become rather tiresome of late. Far too much upper-middle-class anguish over minor trivialities, and not enough on the screen with which audiences can truly connect. And I’ll happily admit that I approached Greenberg, the latest offering from regular Wes Anderson co-conspirator Noah Baumbach, in precisely this spirit.
Not wishing to taint Baumbach with the ever broadening indie-bore brush, of course, especially since I had greatly enjoyed the only other directorial effort of his that I have managed to catch so far, The Squid and the Whale (2005). But I had begun to wonder whether that overwhelmingly positive reaction had less to do with the film itself and more to do with seeing it on a crisp fall evening at the unassumingly wonderful Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on Broadway, when it was on one of those limited releases (ie. two screens in New York, two in L.A.) that I had only ever heard about. There was, to be sure, a genuine thrill in being one of the first to see a film about Brooklynites, in Midtown, amongst (I assume) a bunch of genuine ‘New Yoikers’.
In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), I did go into Greenberg with mixed expectations. And having heard only mixed reviews (at best), I was fully expecting it to grate incessantly in a way that only the whiniest US Indies can. And the fact that it was essentially marketed as ‘Ben Stiller goes (semi) straight’, didn’t exactly help either.
And yet I exited the cinema with a wry smile, having really, honestly enjoyed what is clearly a much more nuanced, subtle and interesting take on the usual obsessions of indie-miserablist fare. Mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig is suitably excellent as the emotionally unstable Florence (launching a thousand ‘Mumblecore Goes Mainstream’ headlines in the process), but it is gross-out icon Ben Stiller who defied my every expectation in an absolutely understated, knock-out performance in the titular role of Roger Greenberg, a 40-year-old has-been who never really was, struggling to deal with his own emotions in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown.
And Roger Greenberg feels like a fundamentally misunderstood character to me – both within the film and without – totally at odds with his surroundings and, crucially, less arrogant and narcissistic than first thought, more ultra-vulnerable and riddled with self-loathing. In fact, I’m not afraid to admit that I really identified with certain elements of this character: particularly his utter bewilderment at the world, and his continuing existence as a man out of step with those around him, and thus one who is always tightly coiled, always ready to snap.
Indeed, I found Greenberg to be a rather acute portrayal of the neuroses of a person (or people, if you extend the reading to Florence) who, like many of us, didn’t grow up to be anything like what they expected of themselves or what others had hoped they would become. And it’s no coincidence that the strongest scenes in a film full of navel-gazing, quasi-existentialism (in which the central character hides his fears and insecurities behind petty complaints and a short temper) come towards the end, as Roger finally begins to drop his ultra-defensive guard. Initially, he opens up to his estranged best friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), admitting that he has no idea about the impact of his own actions, and later makes similar concessions in a telephone message to Florence, with whom he had shared an extended sexual frisson.
As far as I could tell, Roger Greenberg’s seeming arrogance was simply a misguided (and supremely damaging) defence mechanism, a privileged man’s attempts to hide his own feelings, his own misgivings and his own regrets. While most of Hollywood is content to heighten the inherent ‘good’ or ‘evil’ inside us all in the service of paper-thin characterisation, Noah Baumbach proves yet again that he’s not afraid to shine his light on the psychological and emotional complexities that plague us all.