Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Greenberg at 41
Obviously no one enjoys turning 41, or even 30 for that matter. Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is already past 40 and stuck in a mid life crisis involving being wistful about his failed past (his band nearly landed a record deal but he put the kibosh on it, citing wanting to avoid "the corporate bullshit" as his reason.) He has settled as a carpenter in New York. One of his past times is writing whiny letters of complaint to American Airlines and Starbucks and even a pet taxi company. He gets a call from his rich brother in LA who needs him to house sit and watch after the family dog while he and his wife and daughters go on vacation to Vietnam. If he needs anything while he's there, the family assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) is on hand to do errands. Greenberg, who recently has been released from a psychiatric hospital for vague reasons, is bored and lonely once he arrives at his brother's. He has agreed to build them a doghouse but they doubt he'll put much effort into it. The people in his life all agree that he doesn't desire to put much effort into anything. When he reunites with some old friends from his youth, including an ex-girlfriend he still has feelings for (Jennifer Jason Leigh) they all ask him what he's been up to. "I'm trying to do nothing for a while." he honestly answers. "That's brave at our age." Leigh says. He reconnects with his old best friend (Rhys Ifans) a friendly British fellow who looks like he was born to be a rock star but since Greenberg abandoned the band and fled to the east coast, he now fixes computers and is trying to save his troubled marriage to a woman Greenberg despises. Greenberg is a chore to be around, constantly complaining about almost everything. The fact that his pal is patient and understanding of him must be the reason why he doesn't flee.
But the title character isn't the only focus of the story. Florence, the hard working and high strung nanny, is the kind of young woman you'll instantly recognize. We all went to high school or college with a Florence and Gerwig's performance shows real honesty, vulnerability and humanity. This isn't a generic female lead in a romantic drama. We get the sense right away that Florence is a real person with the kind of baggage, emotions and anxieties that many of us face. She's sweet, generous and naive. We see her sing modestly in a nightclub in one scene that resembles Diane Keaton's low key and shy nightclub act in Annie Hall. Greenberg watches her on stage as he grows all the more attracted to her. But she doesn't show any drive or passion to be a singer, she seems to just want someone around.
Of course these two disparate characters try to have sex but it seems more like they're forcing it on each other to go through the motions. He goes down on her and she immediately loses focus. "Was that a train? Did you hear that?" she asks as he's buried between her legs. There's a definite attraction between these two that's marred by the awkward sense of what they should do or say next. Greenberg doesn't treat her with much respect but is always wanting to see her. "Hurt people hurt people" Florence reminds him over the phone after he treated her rudely. At first it seems mysterious why she would be attracted to such as misantrhope, especially one older than her (she's 25). But she recognizes his hostility and cynicism as just a pathetic defense. She also finds his carefree attitude refreshing.
Every word of dialogue and mode of behaviour in this film rings true and seems natural. Co-writer and director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) has infinite empathy for his characters. The film is so well edited and directed and realized. Greenberg is a miserable SOB but for some reason we relate to some of his feelings. No one likes growing old, especially when you constantly reflect on regret and past mistakes but where does that get you when you're constantly throwing your neurosis onto others? In one scene, he gets high with a group of young kids and speechifies about how the generation below him acts fearless and detached. What a more natural way for them to react to the grumpy old man than to giggle at him?