****/**** Image A Sound A Extras D
starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh
written and directed by Noah Baumbach
by Walter Chaw The ideal follow-up to his Dorothy Parker-cum-Rohmer shrine Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach's Greenberg is a deepening of the filmmaker's examinations of the peculiar voids over which we stretch the niceties of interaction betwixt the miserable intellectual elite. It's the Algonquin Roundtable reconstituted as wits without an audience: all outrage without an outlet, there's even this sense of panic attached to Greenberg's little whorls of nervous intellectualism, as if Jonathan Edwards's penitents were literati at risk of being cast into the hell of everyone else. Just as ignorance is bliss, the opposite is most assuredly also true, and it's the product of that deep, consuming contemplation of the navel that is the foundation for Baumbach's films, from his post-grad Kicking and Screaming through to his portraits of agonizing relational disintegrations The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. The anxiety that drives his work is the fear that the armour equipped to defend against the perception of ordinariness doesn't fit well, and that the discovery of the idiot driving the sage is not merely likely but inevitable. His are films, then, of a certain deep discomfort with the projection of the self--and Greenberg, ironically, is an examination of all of Baumbach's issues carried off with what seems like absolute confidence. If Baumbach suffers from the same self-doubt as his characters, he's no longer showing it in his films.
Anchoring Greenberg is the unbearably lovely and natural-feeling Greta Gerwig (dearest to me as the best friend in The House of the Devil) as personal assistant Florence, tasked while her masters are away with keeping an eye on the house, the dog (Mahler), and the brother of the boss, Greenberg (Ben Stiller). Florence is gangly, schlumpfy, flighty--the kind of girl who goes to the grocery store without makeup on and in high Stevie Nicks thrift-store resurrection style. As the film progresses, Florence is given moments of genuine depth and, as delivered by Gerwig, poignancy. Lines of hers like, "You like me so much more than you think you do," and, in response to the reassurance that she has value, "I know that. You don't have to tell me that," reverberate and linger. The same could be said of the film as a whole. It is, as my editor Bill called it, a "grower." Paired against her is Greenberg, the greying curmudgeon. A product of too much education and not enough success, he's a failed musician-turned-bad carpenter recovering from a nervous breakdown and institutionalization; he's funny, but his humour has soured into sardonicism and irony. Unemployed, spending his days writing complaint letters to corporations while grumbling to an old mate (Rhys Ifans) that he actually found himself enjoying the music playing inside a Starbucks, Greenberg is the very model of the modern Prufrock. In time, he discovers that Florence might be right about him liking her more than he thinks he does, yet he no longer, if in fact he ever did, has the mechanism with which to express a genuinely felt emotion that isn't tainted by too much obsessive examination.
Set-pieces like a party at which, high on prescription drugs and cocaine, Greenberg tries in vain to get a house full of twenty-somethings to appreciate the narcotizing properties of Duran Duran share time with quieter moments involving phone calls, a sedate open-mike night (with Florence gaming through a Judee Sill classic), and a hilarious bit of coitus interruptus after a wonderfully awkward seduction/foreplay sequence (the best since a similar moment in Park Chan-wook's Thirst). The engine that drives Greenberg is this tension between the illusion of our outward projection and the absolute loathing of the worms underneath. It's the separation between what we hope we are and what we know we are. In a throwaway line late in the picture, Florence declares that she always thought of Mahler as a little person in a dog suit, which takes on the further complication for the film of not just knowing the truth of the underlying self, but of divining the truth behind our projections of others as well. Florence sees Greenberg as the same sort of person dressed in a dog suit; and Greenberg, by the end, needs Florence to see him that way. The best, most insouciant, least mannered film so far for Baumbach in an already fruitful career, Greenberg is the rare movie of his to see hope for happiness in the destruction of our outward selves. It's a romantic comedy that earns its happiness, however fleeting.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Baumbach's first picture in 'scope, Greenberg comes home on Blu-ray from Universal in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that honours ace DP Harris Savides's '70s throwback shrine. The slightest hint of grain manages in Savides's hands to mimic the quintessence of celluloid's "filmic" quality, while the colours and saturation levels are exceedingly satisfying in their muted, "flashed" appearance. It's perfect, really--not showy but, like the film itself, a real "grower." An exceptional 5.1 DTS-HD MA track matches the video, with dialogue sharing even, logical sense with James Murphy's excellent score. The party sequence provides the most opportunity as showcase and, in defense of the title character, when he cues up Duran Duran, it's all you can do to not cut a few lines. Although the mix itself may not be a barn-burner, the audio does what it does with alacrity and agility. "A Behind the Scenes Look" (3 mins., HD) is an unworthy extended trailer and B-roll clip; "Greenberg Does Los Angeles" (2 mins., HD) is essentially a hollow location-scouting overview; and "Noah Baumbach Takes a Novel Approach" (2 mins., HD) is the not-startling revelation that the very literary Baumbach was inspired by twentieth-century novelists. Fail. Originally published: October 5, 2010.