Directed by Noah Baumbach. Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Merritt Wever, Chris Messina. (2010, R, 107 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 26, 2010
Baumbach's very vocal critics have sneered that with Greenberg, the 40-year-old writer/director has made his first mumblecore movie, the lo-fi, DIY movement Baumbach has dabbled in recently (he produced Joe Swanberg's Alexander the Last and plucked the talented Greta Gerwig from its ranks to co-star here). I think, more accurately, he's working with the same Seventies lexicon that in part inspired the mumblecore generation. It's there alright, in the opening-credits font and the soundtrack (Steve Miller Band, Albert Hammond) and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy's AM-sounding score; in Harris Savides' atmospheric camerawork (dust motes circling in sunlight, L.A. in the evening, gliding by in fuzzy neons) and the actors' shaggy, slouchy mien; and, most especially, in its uncertain and untethered lead, who not only doesn't demand our sympathy, he actively repels it. Stiller plays Greenberg, a Los Angeles native and failed musician who moved to New York, picked up carpentry, and had a mild nervous breakdown. At the film's beginning, he returns home to recuperate in his brother's vacant Laurel Canyon house, swaddled in a safety-blanketlike throwback puffy orange vest (yes, yes – the kind that's big in Brooklyn, mumblecore ground zero, circa now). Greenberg's brother, by the way, is vacationing with his wife and eclectic brood in Vietnam, just one of the tiny, telling details Baumbach layers into the script to create an astute and particular portrait. Greenberg is a loner, for the most part; he passes the time writing bilious missives to megacorporations, although, as in About Schmidt, the letter-writing is less about the sentiment than the process itself. Greenberg eventually takes up with his brother's personal assistant, Florence (Gerwig), who is 15 years his junior but just as directionless. Going dramatic, Stiller commits to the role completely; there's something rather admirable in his refusal to pander or soft-pedal the self-serious, frankly unlikable Greenberg (I found him far more toxic than Nicole Kidman's kicky, undeservedly reviled Margot from Baumbach's previous film, Margot at the Wedding). If the film, like its title, limited its scope to Greenberg alone, I don't think I could recommend it, but Baumbach smartly expands his funny and cutting observational drama into a three-part character study, with standout supporting work from Gerwig and Ifans (as his long-suffering friend). They play Greenberg's abused betters, but they keep plugging away – deluded, maybe, but upliftlingly so. Through them, Baumbach reminds us, like golden-days Mazursky did, of the aching elusiveness but absolute essentialness of human connection.