Tuesday, 6 July 2010



Those familiar with Noah Baumbach’s critically acclaimed The Squid and The Whale (and Margot at the Wedding) will recognise the template repeated here of unlikeable, self-centred East coast academic types, steam-rolling through life with the unwavering self-absorption of the ignorant (whatever their whining insecurities may suggest). The difference is that unlike in The Squid…, where engagement derived from discovering how each character, parents and children, dealt with the central catalyst of a relationship in collapse, here we only have the selfish Roger Greenberg behaving badly to some degree to all and sundry. The other characters in the film highlight this as they are more rounded with qualities to balance against their flaws or negative features.

The problem with an unsympathetic lead who isn’t an antihero figure is that it’s hard to invest in them. We’re told early on that Greenberg has recently emerged from hospital after a breakdown but as the film progresses you get the sense that he’s always been this way.

Rather than revealing some of the worst in human nature as in early LaBute, Baumbach seems content to bring us the merely annoying, like Seinfeld with no jokes, a feeling further cemented thanks to Ben Stiller in the lead. The cast, including Stiller, all play well, but it seems odd to typecast Stiller in the angry man role he often plays. Usually this is tempered in a comedy setting (even Royal Tenenbaums had an undercurrent of ridicule beneath the misery of the protagonists, in Stiller’s case his shared uniform with his sons and Dalmatian mice pricking the seriousness of his character), but when you just get the fury with no lightness to soften the edges it’s a hard watch, fine if that’s the point (Stiller played similarly straight and angry in LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbours) but Greenberg wants to be taken as a quirky indie romcom, more like Juno than In the Company of Men or the Shape of Things.
In presenting a character you’d make an effort to avoid in real life it’s a wonder what kind of audience this is aimed at, let alone how we are supposed to believe in the central romance. Many films give away the best jokes in the trailer, but Greenberg may be unique in having those jokes become no longer funny when seen in context.
Like the character himself, Greenberg isn’t awful but you probably have better ways of spending your time than with it.


David N said...

"Greenberg wants to be taken as a quirky indie romcom, more like Juno than In the Company of Men or the Shape of Things." Does it?
I don't think so. Its a study of modern angst and ennui, and the romcom element is just one - small - part of the narrative, albeit the part that has been highlighted by the marketing. The relationship between Greenberg and Ivan seems more important, really, than the romance.

"The problem with an unsympathetic lead who isn’t an antihero figure is that it’s hard to invest in them."
But why is it necessary to invest in a lead? Surely its enough that a character be interesting or have a certain truth to their portrayal, without the crutch of investment? This is realist art of a sort, and I have met people like Greenberg in my life. That is enough in a film with other things on its mind than making you care about its characters.

Monsieur Le Capuchin said...

I would argue that the Greenberg/Ivan relationship is the best part of the film and where it should focus, but it really is the central romance where the bulk of the movie lies. It is a study of modern angst and ennui but that's been done better elsewhere and the impact it has on him forming relationships with the opposite sex is key. Yes you get his little speeches at the teen party and the sub-Curb Your Enthusiasm rants but mostly it's about his inability, yet yearning to connect.

It's not necessary to invest in a lead if enough is going on. There should be more Ifans, more of the dog (ie the relationship with the outside world;his family; institutions), more of the alienating landscape of Los Angeles or whatever, but no. You may have met people like Greenberg in your life but would you say that they've encouraged you to spend more time with them, to fall in love? I don't buy Florence falling for him.

David N said...

Where has angst & ennui been done better, with such a sure grasp of social dysfunction and the odd tension of old friendships?

I disagree, even that the bulk of the film is about Greenberg & Florence. Hes in every scene after her initial 10 minute vignette and it catalogues all his interactions. Its a character study of, as you say, a man who can't connect. And she is the only person who really connects with him, vulnerable and insecure as she is. Its never even clear that they fall in love, but if thats an issue then sure, people fall in love with unsuitable, annoying, even impossible people all the time. I think that in the internal world of this film it makes perfect sense.

Your criticisms all seem to address what the film wasn't instead of what it was. "There should be more" etc. Why should there be?

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