Thoughts On “Greenberg”

Cocaine-fueled neuroses: always a good recipe for light, breezy comedy.


Greenberg (2010)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach, Jennifer Jason Leigh,
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans

Admittedly, I wasn’t paying attention this past decade, so it took me a while to realize the potency of quirky-savant, Noah Baumbach’s unique style as a writer and director.  And it wasn’t until I saw his latest movie, Greenberg, that I took the time to reexamine his body work on IMDb and think about what it is that makes his movies linger in my thoughts so long after I see them.

In the interest of candor, I will note that I exempt Margot at the Wedding from any praise I have to offer Baumbach, because that movie pretty much sucked. I do recall, however, being particularly moved by The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach’s autobiographical story about two young boys dealing with their parents’ divorce in Brooklyn in the 1980s. Having first seen it circa 2006, I recall, more than anything else, its eery authenticity. I guess the easiest way to explain what I mean by that would be to simply confess that as a child of the 1980s, my perception of the movie was most impacted by one thing: corduroy pants.

Specifically, the corduroy pants and other historically-accurate clothing items worn by the two boys stuck with me, because scene after scene, I thought to myself that those kids’ clothes came straight out of the pictures of me as a toddler in my mom’s old photo albums. (I actually get the same feeling when I watch Kramer vs. Kramer.) And though seemingly fickle, I think Baumbach’s ability to powerfully strike such a nuanced cord is a testament to his skill as a director.

As a writer, Baumbach is quite versatile. In fact, I didn’t realize until after I saw Greenberg that he also had a hand in writing the satirical gem, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But after that, Baumbach went dark with The Squid and the Whale, and then darker with the crap-melodrama, Margot at the Wedding. So, after probably realizing the shittiness of the latter, Baumbach relinquished his heavy pen to get re-acclimated with his lighter one.

And with it, he penned Greenberg, in which he successfully layers subtle, high-brow comedy over darker, more serious themes. The movie stars Ben Stiller as a neurotic New Yorker who, fresh out of the nut house, moves to L.A. to house-sit for his brother with the simultaneous desire to “do nothing.” While there, he rekindles friendships with his estranged high school buds and begrudgingly falls in love with the quaint but damaged personal assistant of his brother’s family.

In a way, Greenberg, is Baumbach’s greatest work to date – and while I am sure diehard movie and/or Baumbach fans will snobbishly heave at that statement, I say it because I feel this movie is the most all-inclusive display of Baumbach’s varied talents. Like his work with Wes Anderson, the movie is artfully witty. Ben Stiller seems to have been a natural fit for the role, as he showed that he can stretch his comedic range to serviceably encompass the Anderson/Baumbach brand of comedy in The Royal Tenenbaums; albeit, his performance in Greenberg was much better, as it gave him a chance to act dramatically under the guise of a “comedic performance.” That is not to say that he wasn’t very funny, because he was. Rather, the role allowed him to sneak in a terrific acting performance for an audience expecting only to see him be funny.

In my favorite scene of the movie, Greenberg’s free-spirited, college-aged niece unexpectedly imposes a rager of a house party on Greenberg. In the darker-themes sense, this sequence highlights Greenberg’s instability and the unpredictable avenues toward self-destruction that open to him as a result. By way of comedy, however, we get to watch Greenberg go from ferociously cleaning and policing the party to blowing lines of cocaine off a mirror with the 20ish year old-guests (definitely Stiller’s best coked-up performance since the disco dance-off in Starskey & Hutch). And as you can imagine, Greenberg’s cocaine-fueled neuroses are immensely enjoyable, as he goes from rapidly explaining his paranoia about generation-Y, to swapping out the kids’ Korn CD for a Duran Duran “record” (because it’s “much better coke music”), to proffering (almost to himself), “I’ve been thinking about getting back into drugs.”

Stylistically, Baumbach drapes a 1970s-Los Angeles veil over the entire movie, just as he did with 1980s-Brooklyn in The Squid and the Whale. In fact, it wasn’t until a reference to e-mail about 10 minutes in that I realized Greenberg takes place in the present day.

And whether its that retro-effect or some other component of his filmmaking, Baumbach has a way of making his movies stick in your subconscious by provoking contemporaneous thought. For example, at the beginning of Greenberg, there is a long continuous shot of the female lead (played by Greta Gerwig) driving in her car, listening to “Jet Airliner” by Steve Miller Band. The shot is almost uncomfortably long, causing the audience to hear much more of “Jet Airliner” than one would otherwise expect to hear of a song in a movie. The audience can’t help but notice and as the song keeps playing, the audience has time to internally reflect: ‘Man, this is a really long shot…I can’t believe it’s still going… This is a really great song though… Do I have it on my iPod?… No I don’t think I do… If not, I’ll download it.’

And just like that, Baumbach has miraculously anchored his movie in your mind. So when you go to download “Jet Airliner” later on, or every time you hear it thereafter, you reflexively think of the relatively unremarkable actress driving her bland little car in that quirky, little movie, Greenberg.

3/5 Stars


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