DIR: Noah Baumbach • WRI: Noah Baumbach, Jennifer Jason Leigh • PRO: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Rudin • DOP: Harris Savides • ED: Tim Streeto • DES: Ford Wheeler • CAST: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Juno Temple
After the incisive The Squid and the Whale and the less warmly received but equally brilliant Margot at the Wedding, it seemed that Noah Baumbach was on something of a roll this past decade. Unfortunately Greenberg grinds him to a complete halt – it’s a film as low-key and lifeless as its central character – a failed musician and middle-aged slacker, recently discharged from a psychiatric ward, whose sole purpose in life now is to do nothing – hardly the stuff of cinematic gold.
Roger Greenberg, played by an almost inanimate Ben Stiller, is house-sitting for his brother for six weeks in LA, spending his days building a house for their dog and writing letters of complaint to big corporations. During this time he catches up with old friends and also meets his brother’s eager personal assistant – a young woman named Florence, played by fresh-faced Greta Gerwig in a wonderfully natural turn. She counters all of Greenberg’s jaded cynicism with ditzy charm and a slight lack of self-esteem evidenced by how easily she falls for him. Why a young woman as attractive and seemingly intelligent as Florence would be drawn to this loser is a mystery never questioned in the film – the audience is expected to watch this queasy sort of reluctant romance unfold, very slowly and without much consequence.
The film’s story was devised by Baumbach and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also plays a brief role as Greenberg’s ex-girlfriend in the film. Unfortunately, there’s not much to it – nothing to really to drive the film forward – neither the inexplicable central relationship nor the irrelevant illness of Greenberg’s brother’s dog. Perhaps this is intentional, to underline Greenberg’s inertia; the majority of the shots in the film are static and observational – but without much action to observe it starts to feel very lethargic.
There are some highlights. In a droll exchange with his former bandmate Ivan Schrank, played by Rhys Ifans, Schrank recalls the old adage ‘Youth is wasted on the young’, to which Greenberg replies, ‘I’d go further, I’d go life is wasted on…people’ – one of the few really funny lines in the film, basically summing up the message of the movie. When Greenberg’s niece returns home and throws a house party, it lands Greenberg in a room full of 20-something scenesters – he clashes with the modern generation of youth, cementing his belief that he’s completely out of touch with the world.
Ultimately this is a film about the disappointments in life, the regrets this rather reprehensible character has. There’s not much offered in terms of a resolution, or even a series of events leading up to one. Full of bitter exchanges and misunderstandings, it ultimately feels like a waste of time – Gerwig’s performance being one of the few bright spots. Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale to anyone whose life is lacking in direction, but hardly a satisfying way to kill two hours in the cinema.