Every year around this time, I start getting nervous that a best-of-the-year list isn't coalescing in my wee brain. 8 weeks from now, the year-end Review needs to hit the counters and I've got no idea what's going to be in it yet. I've got no top movies list for this year ….a few likely candidates, but certainly nothing that could be called a semi-comprehensive summary of 2010's best offerings. So, like clockwork, in mid-October I start playing the catchup game, visiting and revisiting the candidates released to DVD over the past ten or eleven months.
I went into Greenberg with this in mind. Here was a film that split audiences, but received generally solid reviews. I was hoping writer/director Noah Baumbach's third film might pick up where the excellent Squid and the Whale left off. It didn't. It's not that Greenberg didn't have moments, just that it didn't have enough of them. In spite of the fact that I never once forgot it was Ben Stiller up on the screen, he plays the part of Roger Greenberg in a relaxed, direct and confident way. Ditto for Greta Gerwig, an actress I'm not sure I've seen before but liked immensely. Gerwig does her best in what is clearly an underwritten role. To be fair, Baumbach tends to make movies about unsympathetic characters (and Roger Greenberg definitely qualifies as one of those) so expecting much in the way of the standard indie feel-good fare was unrealistic. I think this is a movie that requires a certain forgiveness from the audience... because it becomes obvious fairly early on that Greenberg isn't going to go where anyone wants it to.
I can't put my finger on what's exactly wrong with Greenberg, but something didn't ring true. The script suffered from a little ….droopiness? Sorry, but a better word doesn't come to mind. Perhaps it was entirely intentional, but the characters are mostly assholes and airheads and they kinda got what they deserved... which for all I know may have been Baumbach's point. The whole preening bourgeoisie/lost generation thing just didn't work for me though.
Which brings me to the interesting divide critics and viewers seem to have about Greenberg. The film seems to split about 50/50 with about half suggesting it's a brilliant, state-of-the-moment zeitgeist character study and the balance feeling like they've sat through a horrible narcissist's convention. I desperately wanted to belong to the first group but found myself frustrated by the film – it took a very promising concept and then didn't seem to know what to do with it.
It seems entirely reasonable that sooner or later the central social issue of our time - that our society is simply overflowing with self-absorbed buffoons would be the subject of a truly great modern film. The topic seems, however, something of an elephant in the room with this generation of filmmakers. Greenberg has a few moments where it elevates to social commentary (the adult party overrun with children, for one), but it retreats to the safety of odd-ball-outsider territory almost every time. Baumbach has Dumbo in his sights time and time again but can't quite bring himself to pull the trigger.
What Roger Greenberg reminded me of was Larry David's Curb character, but without the gloriously-sunny disposition that makes that character bearable. There's a fine line in cringe-comedy writing between whingeing humour and the simply painful ..... and there's entirely too much of the latter in this film. It’s all very well giving us insights into a troubled soul, but Greenberg gets lost in the stifling unpleasantness of the lead. As it is, it's too uncomfortable to be a comedy, not meaty enough to be a drama and not brave enough to be a satire.
Strike one from the candidate list.