Friday, April 2, 2010
God did I hate Noah Baumbach. I found his previous two films, The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding not only contemptible, but full of contempt themselves. To say I gained nothing from watching them would be an understatement, as I actually feel as though I lost something in the process as well. So when I say I was angry at being enticed by the trailer for Greenberg, you know what I mean. And if I were a more bitter man, I'd probably be just as angry that I actually really loved the damn movie, too.
Is this because it feels like the most compromised of Baumbach's last three films? True, it still features an unlikeable character at its center, but most of the characters are downright charming, if just hopelessly sad. It's far more by-the-numbers in its plotting than his last two films - I'd wager Greenberg makes one or two totally unexpected, horrible decisions during the film, whereas nearly everyone in the previous two would constantly surprise us with their depths of depravity. But, as I thought walking out of Margot at the Wedding, perhaps this is a filmmaker who could use some taming.
More after the jump...
Ben Stiller stars as the titular character, Roger Greenberg, fresh out of a mental institution and straight into his vacationing brother's posh Los Angeles home. There he meets the film's co-lead, Florence (Greta Gerwig), herself a little out of sorts due to common angst about lacking direction (those inclined to rationalize standard fears would call it a quarterlife crisis), compounded by a recent break-up with a longterm boyfriend.
Naturally, the film follows a familiar path - the girl and the guy become romantically entangled, and either they will end up together or they won't. That's not really the point, is it? They will fight, often - they are two fairly damaged people - but the machinations of the plot and occasionally their own free will bring them back together, again and again. What keeps the film so refreshing and so emotionally satisfying is what, increasingly, is the case with every worthwhile film in modern cinema - the direction and the performances.
Abandoning the taller, 1.85:1 frame he used in his last two films, Baumbach and the great cinematographer Harris Savides (Gerry, Elephant, Milk, Zodiac, Margot at the Wedding) threw open the sides for a full anamorphic frame, suiting the spread-out Los Angeles environment while frequently isolating Greenberg in space. Additionally, he drew a career-best performance from Ben Stiller, placing his now-common neurotic (of There's Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, The Royal Tenenbaums, etc.) in a real, psychological setting, desperate to find meaning and direction in his life at an age when he should be at the height of his career.
Greta Gerwig has enjoyed creative success in independent films such as Nights and Weekends and Baghead, but whereas in those films one could sense that the character was built up mostly by her performance, here she is given a fully-formed character upon which to build. The results are predictably wonderful. Gerwig's previous performances called for a good deal of improvisation, the skill for which is, at its core, about investment in a specific moment and making the audience feel as though it were being created right in front of them. Although working with a scripted character this time, she never loses sight of the goal of improvisation, even if the practice is quite different.
It's a wonderful film all around, equally for the fear it creates ("man, I really don't want to be at that place when I'm 40"), and yes, the hope it presents (the joy of the possibility of free-ranging conversations lasting long into the night, although the film thankfully doesn't indulge by asking us to sit through one). The oddly compromised nature of the film didn't bother me (I'd imagine more die-hard Baumbach fans might think he's selling out), and I should mention that if you're tuned into the film's wavelength, it's also enormously funny.