Alex Catches Up On 2010, Chapter 1: “Greenberg”

Alex: Finally watched Greenberg last night. I knew Aaron hated it, and I fully expected to hate it, because I trust Aaron (except when he’s wrong) and I thought the trailer made Greenberg look like a two-hour ramble of depressive hetero narcissism — a lost, sensitive, wry but disengaged man rescued from himself by an artsy, devil-may-care woman — an extended “Bored to Death” episode without jokes.

I was wrong. (And so is Aaron.) Once again a bad trailer indicates a complicated, subtle movie — something difficult to pitch in 90 seconds.

Greenberg subverts every expectation: the She in this movie, Florence (Greta Gerwig), doesn’t rescue our anti-hero (Ben Stiller), she doesn’t even really like him — except when she does. Their first sexual encounter is so awkward it’s excruciating to watch. (In a way I found honest and realistic, but I suspect Aaron finds it hard to swallow.)

(Heh heh … “swallow.”)

Meanwhile, there are all the usual types in a movie like this: the ex-long-term girlfriend, the best buddy who’s grown out of the guys’ shared silly youth, the ditzy interloper whose sexual availability to our hetero hero is an invitation for him to indulge in nihilism. We saw it all in Sideways.

But in Greenberg, we hardly see the ex (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and when Greenberg tries to go back to her, she simply laughs it off, and that’s the end of it. It’s not a subplot, it’s a moment, and a heart-wrenching one. Meanwhile, the best male buddy (Rhys Ifans) has a major bone to pick with Greenberg about What Might Have Been, but, as in so many of these friendships (in real life, I mean, not in movies), they both just go along and try to live with that bone because each is afraid of losing the other. And, finally, Greenberg doesn’t sleep with the ditz and hate himself the morning after — he has a moment of clarity where he sees how stupid he’s about to be and he bolts. (Without, it’s worth adding, the inherent misogyny of Sideways. This movie respects its women, even, oddly, those two bimbos — who aren’t really bimbos, they’re just very young and very rich.)

Greenberg is like a Woody Allen hero without the one-liner in his holster. He’s so incapable of expressing himself that sometimes — as in a touching pseudo-conversation with Merritt Wever at a bar — he simply opts not to. He’s such a delicate character that Ben Stiller’s practiced timing and mannerisms — however naturalistic they may appear — don’t end up doing him justice. I really think Ben is miscast: he’s an actor who can’t help but express himself, and as a result he never really gets to the agonizing depths behind Greenberg’s numbness.

One other complaint: his family is drawn so broadly — they’re the self-involved rich people who can’t deal with even a moment of disorder — that they become a too-convenient antagonizing force for both Greenberg and Florence.

I like this movie a lot. Aaron’s mad at me for it. Aaron, go.

Aaron: Oh, brother, where to start. I think what I don’t like about this film is so different from what you like about it, Alex, that this argument might go pear-shaped quickly.

What you like about the film is generally right, but the problem is that you might not be seeing how totally unoriginal this is because you might not have seen all the mumblecore that I have seen. I don’t say this to be superior to you (of course I am better in every way, you toad), but I have a different experience with other films from this genre/aesthetic… so I’m looking at it through a different lens.

Greenberg is a mumblecore movie – but not in the traditional low-budget sense. (N.b. A few years ago Noah Baumbach was a producer on Joe Swanberg’s middle-budget, unsuccessful film Alexander the Last. He’s knows mumble.) This is a Hollywoodification of mumble. But that doesn’t work by its very definition. You can’t make outsider art from the inside; you can’t do off-Broadway on Broadway. It will never come out honest or good.

On top of this, the Greenberg character is totally stolen from a handful of foundational mumblecore movies such as Hannah Takes the Stairs (the first guy she dates… I think it’s Mike… played by Mark Duplass… who’s also in this film, funny enough) and Mutual Appreciation (the lead, Alan). Both of those characters are shallow, limited guys with no direction who get by on the goodwill of their friends and lovers. They sorta pass through the world as cynical observers and don’t ever respond to people in kind ways.

Greenberg as a character is totally uninteresting. To say he’s like a Woody Allen character is mostly right – but those characters are not really interesting and generally function only to have the one-liner holster on their hips; without the charm and humor many of these guys are simply boring losers.

The sex scene that you talk about it horribly conceived: He goes into her place and begins going down on her (a total mumble set-up, by the way … more-than-frank sex for no reason), then he just stops after about 45 seconds and gets up and she takes him home. This scene doesn’t move at all. It shows him to be a selfish jerk, but we already knew he is that. It also reads as totally false and dishonest. Nobody in the world would ever just stop in the middle of giving head and just walk away with no comment. No woman would just let that happen with as much as an inquisitive line. The discomfort that we have to sit and watch this is truly there, but the stronger aftertaste (heh heh heh “aftertaste”) is that he bizarrely stopped mid-cunilingus. This set-up started as a mumble thing and ends as a badly executed device.

The script is the biggest problem with this film because it wants so badly to be a mumblecore movie, but it has a bigger budget and needs wide distribution, so it’s just a halfway job. It’s neither fish nor fowl. The only reason Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is in the film is because she’s married to Baumbach and she’s a producer. There is no reason in the narrative for her to be there. As you say, Alex, she’s not really a subplot, she’s a moment.

Let’s also discuss other annoying things – like the decision to have Greenberg not have a car or any way for him to get himself around Los Angeles. Mostly this shows him to be a helpless dick who isn’t self-sufficient and need others to get along in life (even if he doesn’t acknowledge that fact). But this element of his personality is clearly apparent in everything he does. More vexing is that it’s completely ridiculous that someone would move to Silverlake without a car. It would be like moving to Alaska in winter only with shorts and flip-flops. It’s so bizarre it takes away from the realistic level of the film. It’s indulgent.

When you call the women ditzes and bimbos, Alex, are you talking about Gerwig? I didn’t think she was ditzy at all. She’s one of the only honorable characters in the film, no? That she might seem flighty has more to do with the fact that as an honest mumble-alumna, Gerwig paints her as a bit open-ended and directionless.

Maybe that’s my problem with this… this film is really a hybrid of mumble and cynical Hollywood character study. Parts of it are honest (like Gerwig’s character) and parts are dishonest (like the car and driving business).

I think the relationship with Ifans is close to an honest relationship – especially in how it doesn’t really come to some completion or resolution – but it just seems so dull and overdone. I’m supposed to feel something because their friendship falls apart. But it falls apart because… well, because shit falls apart in life and doesn’t really mean anything. We are stuck here with a fictional character whose actions represent stuff and give us a glimpse into his soul, and a naturalistic framework, where stuff just happens because that’s the way stuff happens.

I’m sorry if this got very inside baseball and wonky, but mumblecore is sorta my passion and I love that you like what you liked in this film. I just feel that all of that has been done better by other directors before Baumbach. I think if you were to see Kissing on the Mouth, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, you’d get a much more complete experience than what you got here. They’re all much more honest and much more naturalistic. I think Baumbach probably watched all of those before making this film and I think he, uh… borrowed heavily from them.

Alex: I think it’s sweet, Aaron, how personally this film has affronted you. Your love for mumblecore is deep and sincere (though, I admit, a little mysterious to me). There’s an analysis of the movement waiting to be written: What is it a response to? Perhaps the absorption by the studios of indie companies? Is there some nostalgia for the 90s in it? Is it the nouvelle vague of our time? (Oh yes. I italicized the shit out of that phrase.)

We’ll tackle all of that in another post. For now I’m too busy insulting you.

Your criticisms of Greenberg are the equivalent of saying that Howard Hawks was stepping out of bounds when he contributed to the film noir movement — I refer, as we all know, to The Big Sleep — because he was American and he’d made a bunch of other movies in a bunch of other genres and he broke the rules of noir by giving his movie a happy ending and no real femme fatale.

And that is, as the French say, retarded.

Noah Baumbach may be connected to the mumble movement, but has he ever really been a part of it? (I’m asking that sincerely; I never saw his first movie, Kicking and Screaming, which sounds like it may be what scholars will come to call proto-mumble.) The Squid and the Whale may be about white people talking about their problems, but it is very “well made” in both a camera sense and a writing sense; there’s nothing gritty about it.

So while Greenberg may have a relationship to mumble, I don’t see it as posing as such. Whatever Baumbach’s intentions and cred, I’m afraid I found Greenberg himself painfully believable. Maybe it helps to be an L.A.-raised depressive who’s beginning to think the peak of his artistic career is behind him. (Okay, I just took this post to dark place.) Perhaps the fact that Greenberg “just got out of a mental hospital” is an easy blanket, i.e. it vaguely justifies all his eccentric behavior. But really, I thought everything he did — and didn’t do — was in keeping with someone who’s never quite been able to function in the world and is at a point in his life where that’s becoming newly absurd and destructive. (It’s okay — even kind of fun — when you’re 21, but when you’re 41 it’s fucking terrifying.)

Where you see laziness, I gave the film a certain credit: I totally believe Greenberg wouldn’t have a driver’s license because he’s the kind of guy who, even with an impending L.A. trip, would just kinda sorta never get around to going to the DMV. (This from someone who spent the last three months avoiding a trip to the DMV. I finally went yesterday because, of course, I’m about to travel to places where driving will be useful — but I’m not as fucked up as Greenberg.) As he keeps reminding us, he’s actively trying to “do nothing” — an impossible paradox — so it makes sense to me that he wouldn’t have a way of leaving his brother’s house. Because he never particularly intended to. (I got the impression, also, that this was a house-sitting trip, not a permanent move. Which rang true to me: it’s the kind of thing a well-intentioned family member would ask of a “sick” sibling, thinking that a change of scenery will be salubrious. But, conveniently for the brother, he doesn’t have to engage with Greenberg.)

One last note: I didn’t mean to suggest that Greta’s character is “bimbo”-ish in this movie. I found both character and actress multi-dimensional and subtle and sensitive. I was referring to those two college girls at the end who almost whisk Greenberg off to Australia.

Finally, should we start putting our names in colors for easy scanning? Because you just know that, among our millions of readers, there are some who are on Team Alex and some who are on Team Aaron.

Aaron: Taking your points in no particular order, Alex (because that’s the pimp hand of blogging, dontcha know):

Your comments about Hawks and the Big Sleep are interesting, but miss my bigger point. I don’t care that Baumbach has never done mumblecore in the past (and no, he has not…Kicking and Screaming and Squid/Whale are not mumble… though this one might be), I care that he doesn’t do a good job with it. Your point about how Greenberg just got out of the hospital is exactly my point. This is the laziest gimmick I could imagine for setting up a character. It tells us he’s crazy rather than showing us he’s crazy (frankly I’m sick of writers’ and directors’ obsession with mental health. It’s boring and is much more a reflection on their own brains than on any bigger context of sanity in the larger culture. Again, I’d call it lazy, or at least uninspired and simple). Regardless, such a silly fakeconvention is the antithesis of good mumblecore.

Your contention that the film is not posing as mumblecore, by the way is ridiculous. It quacks like a duck and looks like a duck and flies like a duck – It’s a motherfucking duck… but one with a broken fucking wing. We’re never going to see eye-to-eye on the verisimilitude of Greenberg’s character (yes, fuck face, I just used verisimilitude on your fucking blog). I think he is overdone and annoying without any interesting redeeming qualities. He is a monolith of terrible humanity. That’s banal and tepid to the point of putting me to sleep.

I also don’t believe that his brother would be such a dick as to have his sick brother (or struggling brother, at least) come to live in his house, have his personal assistant take care of the guy and not give him a car. That’s just simply too much. Maybe he should also have a Sudanese Lost Boy recovering from organ robbers with no anesthetic and a Cambodian sex worker (that Nicholas Kristof rescued) trying to figure out her life without the contacts in her lost cell phone there too? It’s just a pile-on and silly.

Sorry about misunderstanding your comment about the bimbos, Alex, but I think those girls bring up another point of silliness for me, which is: when in a million years have you gone so far as to go to the fucking airport with a guy you meet at a party? I get the romanticism of this moment, but it’s totally bizarre and reads from a mile away as another cry for help (ugh – I can’t believe I just used that term). He was never getting on that plane, because he’s too self-concerned/self-loathing. Why did I have to watch those 12 minutes if I knew what was going to happen in the end and it didn’t really illuminated anything new about him? Again, it was totally indulgent and badly written by Baumbach.

Let me say here that if Greta Gerwig is reading this: Greta, I love you so much and I want to make babies with you (I know, Alex – eeeew, right?!). (Whisper: call me.)

Alex – if we use colors for our names, I want to be blue.

Alex: Aaron, you ignorant slut. I don’t believe for a moment that you wouldn’t hop in the back of Greta Gerwig’s SUV if she were driving to the airport to take a jaunt to Australia.

But of course, Greta’s special; she is to you what Casey Affleck is to me, so let he who is without whatever cast the first thingamabob.

I’m afraid I can imagine a version of myself that would follow someone I barely knew on a trip like that. It’s a version of me that’s full of self-hatred and wants to recapture spontaneity and doesn’t remember sex being fun. I’m also rather sad to say — addressing a point from earlier in this Greenberg post — that I have been in awkward oral-sex situations that are without passion or trashiness and just kind of end without either party being satisfied. (Mom, don’t read this paragraph.)

I wish I agreed that Greenberg is a “monolith of terrible humanity,” because I like that phrase so much. But I don’t think he’s so terrible. I don’t exactly like him, but I am interested in him. He’s an anti-hero.

Or maybe he’s just my kind of sociopath. I’ll take it up with my shrink.

You can have blue if I can have Sunday Tiger Woods red-and-black.

Aaron: Was that last line about Tiger racist? (I thought he just wore red on Sunday… or was that just before the sexaholism therapy?)

Harry Lime is an antihero. Greenberg couldn’t wash Harry Lime’s socks.

Alex: You’re insane. Harry Lime is the bad guy. He’s just anti. In no way, shape, form is he the hero, in any sense, of that movie. (Holly Martens is.)

No, I wasn’t being racist, you money lender. Tiger’s Sunday colors have always been red and black. (Which, by the way, were the colors I wanted for my bar mitzvah, long before anyone knew who Tiger Woods was. I was that cool. Uh, but I lost the fight, and my colors ended up blue and white.)

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About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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