I’m not sure who the movie Greenberg is intended for. Despite some good reviews it seems unlikely that many critics actually enjoyed the experience of sitting through Ben Stiller’s one-note performance. Writer-director Noah Baumbach holds an inexplicable affection for the thoroughly unlikeable, narcissistic, self-hating misanthrope Sam Greenberg but those of us who prefer not to spend our movie viewing time torturing ourselves wish we had bought a ticket to Hot Tub Time Machine instead.
Hollywood pictures often leave character development (let alone character studies) to our imaginations. We are meant to fill in the blanks based on snappy remarks, clothes, or the car a character is driving – that is all we should need, in Hollywood’s estimation, as far as character development goes. It’s frustrating to spend close to two hours in a movie and come out not knowing much about any of the characters. Writers and directors put us through the paces of a plot without populating it with real people. Instead we are treated to a long line of empty-headed caricatures existing solely to get us to the final act of the picture without messy distractions like back story. They don’t tell us anything fresh or interesting, nothing that might give us some insight into human nature. At the end of the wildly overrated three-hour Avatar all I knew about Sam Worthington’s character was that he wanted to walk again and he was an idiot. Not much to get excited about there.
The art of fully fleshing out a character on screen is mostly left to independent productions, but why is it that independent filmmakers so often decide to portray the lives of people that I just don’t care about?
Without much of a plot to speak of this movie has to hook the audience into caring for Greenberg (Ben Stiller) for it to work at all. But why should we care? Having just recovered from a nervous breakdown, Greenberg returns to Los Angeles from several years in New York to housesit for his vacationing brother in the Hollywood Hills. He spends his time kvetching about life with old friends (or people who just put up with him because of distant memories of a past friendship) and pining over a lost love. His only responsibility is to look after his brother’s family’s beloved dog Mahler (the most endearing character in the entire picture). And it’s good that his responsibilities are so limited since Sam Greenberg has boldly, at the age of 41, decided to do nothing. He spends his time eating ice cream sandwiches and drinking whiskey. Now that is someone I want to spend two hours with.
Greenberg doesn’t have to be likeable or redeemable for the movie to work, but there needs to be someone in the picture for me to respond to – someone who challenges Greenberg, someone who calls him on his bullshit. But Baumbach eschews any challenge to Greenberg since he has his main character surrounds himself with meek excuses for relationships, including an ex-bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and his brother’s doormat of an assistant, Florence. It is in these relationships that we expect to see Greenberg’s douchbaggery exposed and there are moments when it feels like it is about to happen, but they mostly fizzle out with quick put downs from Greenberg and Ivan and Florence withdrawing into their shells. Baumbach allows Greenberg to kick everyone around him because anyone with any kind of backbone would have been repelled by the man long ago. Anyone left over would be people like Ivan and Florence, people with emotionally weak shells just trying to get along without disturbing too many people around them.
Greta Gerwig’s portrayal of Florence is really much more interesting than Ben Stiller’s Greenberg and I wish the movie had been about her. She’s a mousey young woman without the ability to stand up for herself or to say no if it might cause someone any problems. She’s terrified of being noticed, but in the process just makes herself more conspicuous. She steadfastly refuses a check from her employers the day before they leave for vacation, only to borrow $40 from a friend later that evening. She is a one of the legions of young people flocking to Los Angeles who have vague dreams of success, with only a college degree and no life experience to help. They meet on Facebook and Craig’s List but congregate at massively awkward parties so they can all congratulate themselves on being socially adjusted but they have to drink a lot of alcohol to get through it. It’s all an act of course. Florence might be great at picking up dry cleaning, but she is lousy at developing any kind of relationship, romantic or otherwise.
Greenberg is naturally attracted to Florence because she is another broken person who he can lord over while pretending to himself (and the audience) that there really is some goodness deep down inside. Naturally Florence gives in to his initial advances – what else could she do? Saying no might have caused some confrontation or uneasiness. I figured that this was another manifestation of her low self-esteem but she inexplicably falls for Greenberg. I never did figure out why she would be attracted to this middle aged neurotic. He treats her miserably, but she keeps coming back for more – why? Yes she has low self-esteem, but it was established early in the movie that she can at least make relationship mistakes with reasonably attractive men her own age. She tells her friend she thinks he is vulnerable, which is only cute in puppies and broken hearted high school boys, not adults.
I attempted to stick with Greenberg until about the last third. That was when I threw in the towel and felt the bile rising in my belly. I didn’t really love anything that came before, but I told myself to wait and see where it goes. It had to be going somewhere, right? There had to be a point to all of it. I mean I liked Noah Baumbach’s earlier picture The Squid and the Whale. This movie couldn’t be just plain terrible. It had to be going somewhere. But I finally realized that there was no insight, no point – it wasn’t going anywhere at all, just like Sam Greenberg. Luckily I had somewhere to go after the movie and what a wonderful realization that was.