The films I’ve been talking about so far this week all came out in the month of June here in the UK. Normally, this is a good month for all sorts of films as the film studios fight for our movie-going money; however, this year was different, because the World Cup was upon us. Between the middle of June and the beginning of July, the cinema screens around the country were quiet because the film execs believed that nobody would watch their films because they believed that everyone would be watching the World Cup. This led to the question: did the film studios avoid distributing films at this time because they thought that nobody would go to the cinema, or did people not go to the cinema because there was nothing to watch?
I mention this because I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have gone to the cinema to watch Greenberg if it hadn’t been the best option in an otherwise scarcely populated field. This isn’t to disparage Noah Baumbach and his genre of films, but watching a film like this on the big screen does nothing to enhance its merits, and I think it is easier to enjoy on DVD. The reviews are what tipped the balance in its favour: people had talked about Ben Stiller being ‘good’ and the quality of the film. I think I missed all that …
Stiller is the Greenberg of the title, a 40-year-old man who is recovering from a nervous breakdown and is house-sitting his brother’s home in LA, where he grew up, after being in New York for a long while. He is deliberately ‘doing nothing’, although he tells people he is doing some carpentry, while writing letters to corporations complaining about some insignificant detail; he was in a band that almost had a record deal, but he nixed it because he thought there would be another record deal. Back in LA, he meets up with Ivan (Rhys Ifan), the singer in the band who had really wanted the record deal but now works in IT and is trying to get back with his wife (whom Greenberg hates) and their child; he also meets up with his ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s partner and co-writer of the story), who is happily settled with kids and rebuffs Greenberg’s pathetic attempts to rekindle their relationship.
The main thrust of the film is about Greenberg developing an awkward relationship with his brother’s PA, Florence (Greta Gerwig), which starts because Greenberg doesn’t drive and needs someone to get him places in LA, and because he doesn’t have any other friends. The awkwardness between them is strange and odd – the scene where they are talking in her small apartment before Greenberg decides to kiss her and then jumps straight to performing uncomfortable cunnilingus is a perfect example of this – and it is made more awkward because of Greenberg’s inability to understand anything about himself and his interaction with other humans.
Stiller was praised for his performance but it didn’t seem to be anything more than a toned-down version of his normal character – Greenberg is supposed to be irritating and unlikeable, a trait that Stiller brings to most of his characters. The real standout performance is from Gerwig – I’ve never watched any of the ‘Mumblecore’ films she has been in, but I assume that her naturalness that shines here was already present. While Stiller can be seen acting natural, Gerwig just exudes it, as if the camera happened to be on while she was being the character. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen in quite some time, and I hope she goes far.
As for the film, it is halting and erratic, with one of those achingly hip soundtracks that I don’t like because I have different musical tastes but know that trendy types will love. I never got into the film, kept out of connecting with it because of the irritating nature of Greenberg, which is partly the point. It has a strange, quiet feel to it, and it ends rather oddly, in tune with the rest of the film, leaving the viewer with an unsatisfied feel and the option of deciding whether you’ve enjoyed it or not. I think it depends on if you want to see Greenberg and Florence get together; I didn’t, and would rather see the lovely (if odd) Florence with someone much better.