Well, thank you, Amanda! Since then, we've been on a film watching spree - some old and some new. Our review of KICK-ASS will be coming soon, as will a review of a classic now out on DVD.
But first, we explore the world of GREENBERG. This review will be chock full of useful information, upfront, honest, and entertaining in and of itself. Join us, won't you?
[editor's note: man, these guys' shameless self-promotion might be douchier than Nikki Finke's]
BRIAN: Initial reactions to GREENBERG: not as funny as I expected, slight departure in directorial style, my least favorite Baumbach film but still quite good.
But... as with any film in this mold, initial reactions are borderline dismissible. Insight never comes in the middle of a real-life experience, and here, a viewer needs distance to be able to process this real-life story. Baumbach’s movies stick with you and reveal themselves the more thought is applied to them.
Some have mentioned that this is the closest Baumbach has come to doing a genre film, interpreting it as a twisted attempt at a romantic comedy. I can certainly see those elements – there were moments of surprising tenderness between the two romantic leads (surprising for a filmmaker known for caustic exchanges and thinly veiled insults as greetings), and the climactic rush to the airport is straight out of FOUR WEDDINGS, LOVE ACTUALLY, and every other rom com of the past 20 years. But the genre it most resembles to me is the Coming of Age tale. This isn’t immediately apparent because the main character is 40 years old – he should be nearing midlife crisis, not growing up. But the fact that this is so belated for Greenberg, and those who can identify with him, is one of its key observations. GREENBERG is not just a coming of age movie, it’s a generational statement. It should rightfully become a companion piece to Linklater’s SLACKER or Nirvana’s Nevermind as a defining Generation X work of art.
GOLAN: So this is where I review the movie with that guy who did the bad AVATAR parody at the Oscars? Sweet.
Let me start out by saying that I actually liked this flick more than I thought I would. I agree with you that it wasn’t as funny as I expected, and was also my least favorite Baumbach film. You thought I was going to say MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, right? Nope. This one takes it.
I rarely like movies where misery is meant as a doorway into what life is all about. I think it’s an easy in – like trying to make me cry by showing me movies about cancer or the Holocaust. Sure, I will, but as Woody Allen once brilliantly said, “Well, it ruins it for me if you have grass (clearing his throat) because, you know, I'm, like, a comedian – so if I get a laugh from a person who's high, it doesn't count. You know? 'Cause they're always laughin'.” And likewise, I’ll always cry when you give me subjects that are uber-sad. But with misery, filmmakers think that they can make someone a misanthrope and that’s enough for me to lean closer to the screen and give a shit.
It’s like certain filmmakers are telling us that if we’re miserable, we’re deeper. That we have some ethereal connection with the world, or that we understand concepts that happy (read: stupid and content) people could never grasp. I find that to be a bunch of bullshit. Miserable people aren’t deep. They aren’t likable for their “quirks” or their observations. They don’t make me want to delve into their psyche to get a sense as to why they are the way they are. Often, they are – in contrast to the above – assholes that are unlikable that I don’t want to see triumph over their fucked up worldview.
That being said, Baumbach manages, when he is at his best (the script for FANTASTIC MR. FOX, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE), to present not merely misery or caustic barbs, but some authentic glimpses into real human behavior. I’m not sure that this one qualifies to be in the same class as the two films mentioned in parentheses above.
While I didn’t hate this film, I did feel that it lacked a character arc that got me excited (despite your protestations that he “comes of age”), lacked a character that I gave a shit about (despite your pronouncements that he represents a “generation”), and lacked character motivations that I believed. Maybe you’re right that this one will hit me months from now in the middle of the night, but don’t hold your breath.
Before I keep rambling… your thoughts?
BRIAN: Rambling is right – what are you talking about, Grandpa? It sounds like you’re ranting and raving about the emo movement. Not only is that so 2000-and-late, it’s neither here nor there. You’re accusing Noah Baumbach – one of the most unsentimental American filmmakers working today – of being a trendy wrist-cutter? You saw GREENBERG, right? When the Arclight guy took your ticket and directed you to Theatre 7 on your right, you didn’t accidently go into Theatre 8 on your left where they were showing THE LAST SONG? Because what you’re describing is a Nicholas Sparks novel, where indeed, a terminal illness subplot will twist your arm until you say uncle. As in, “Uncle… don’t die, Uncle Bert... why must you die when I’m trying to fall in love?!”
Watch from 3:10 to 4:45. It’ll change your life:
Let me reprint the lyrics to the song on the soundtrack after poor Mandy Moore runs:
“Welcome to the planet…welcome to existence…”
It’s so deep. So deep, put her ass to sleep.
Please don’t mistake Mr. Baumbach for Mr. Sparks. You’re embarrassing yourself. The misanthropy seemed honest, not manufactured. Stiller’s Greenberg is in a long line of Baumbach characters who think themselves morally and intellectually superior: Jeff Daniels in SQUID and Nicole Kidman in MARGOT are two of the most precisely written – and memorable – characters of the past 10 years. And because Greenberg is just an extension of this, I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to say that Baumbach is going for easy sympathy.
Moreover, I disagree with your charge that the film isn’t in the same class as his other films in providing glimpses into real human behavior. Perhaps you’re misreading the film’s imposed distance to its characters. GREENBERG, like his other films, is a comedy of manners. Thus, it needs to keep the viewer at a distance, the better view to observe not just Greenberg, but the entire generation he represents. In other words, the film shouldn’t be viewed with a microscope, zooming in on a character’s hidden life. Take a clue from the very first shot – a panoramic view of the smog hanging over Los Angeles – it should be viewed with a telescope.
I wrote above that I see GREENBERG as a belated Generation-X coming of age film. Let me get into it. Greenberg is miserable, yes. But he is part of a generation whose identity is attached to the prefix “anti.” Anti-establishment, anti-consumerism, anti-etc. It would be hard not to be miserable. Greenberg is a former musician. The pivotal mistake in his life is his rejection of a label offer when he was 25. He’s 40 now, which would likely place his music in the post-grunge alt-rock scene (the label rejection fits right into the ethos of that scene). If it seems odd that this is a coming of age movie with a protagonist that’s 40, Greenberg has a bad case of arrested development. He’s still 25, still grunge rock at heart. He spends his free time writing angry letters to mega-corporations – a sad, impotent outlet for the angry songs he no longer writes. And it’s not just Greenberg, it’s Los Angeles plagued by the industry’s youth culture: at a party, the adults dress like kids and the kids dress like superheroes. “Youth is wasted on the young,” his friend absent-mindedly quotes, and that cliché has never seemed more bitterly jealous than it does here. You write that the film lacked an arc that excited you. I find Greenberg’s coming of age moving and compelling, especially because it was 15 years in the making. Growing up – letting go of all the anger and all the anti-blank – would be admitting that the past 15 years have been a waste. By the end of the movie, he finally takes baby steps towards embracing a life he never planned on. One might imagine his entire generation having to similarly reconcile their hard-headed ideals with the practicalities of life when faced with adulthood. Many argue that Kurt Cobain’s greatest demon was his success.
Greenberg grows up with the help of a girl who’s his emotional match. He seems to be stuck at 25, which is Greta Gerwig’s age in the film. It’s notable that Baumbach cast Gerwig, a mumblecore icon if there is one, in this role (Mark Duplass, another mumblecore alum, is also in it). The movement is the most recent wave to define a generation, and Baumbach uses Gerwig’s generation – overeducated, coddled, aimless, cripplingly self-aware – as a way to complement and contrast Stiller’s. In the film’s set piece, Greenberg directs a drug-induced rant to a party of millenials. It includes the best acting I’ve seen from Mr. Stiller.
There’s a NY Times article about Greta Gerwig representing a new generation of actors that I’d love to eventually discuss in a future post (and acting trends of the past 10 years), but I should probably hand this off to you for a rebuttal on the movie at hand.
But hang on, one more thing…your comment about miserable people not being deep? Fuck YOU!
Welcome to the planet, buddy. Welcome to existence.
GOLAN: Huh? What? Sorry, I dozed off there for a second. My favorite part of your response was that you completely missed the point of what I was saying. I wasn’t saying that GREENBERG was trying to be emo, nor trendy, nor sentimental. I’m saying that much like a movie such as THE LAST SONG, THE NOTEBOOK or A WALK TO REMEMBER tries to make me feel sad by throwing around concepts like “Cancer” or “Alzheimer’s” or “I do not need a reason to be angry with God,” or movies such as THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS or RADIO or SEVEN POUNDS tries to make me feel moved by throwing around concepts like “Holocaust” or “Mentally Challenged” or “Jellyfish,” movies like GREENBERG try to make me give a shit by throwing around concepts like “misanthrope,” “morally intellectual” and “emotionally stunted.” I don’t think they’re going for easy sympathy, but they sure are going for easy Gen-X cred (which you, apparently, bought into… so good for them).
And I totally get why Baumbach and Stiller made it! I think the reasons are similar to why Stephen Daldry and Kate Winslet decided to make THE READER.
I quote Ms. Winslet herself, explaining why she took on the role (for which she won an Oscar): “I don't think we really need another film about the Holocaust, do we? It's like, how many have there been, you know? We get it. It was grim. Move on. No, I'm doing it because I've noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust you're guaranteed an Oscar… That's why I'm doing it. SCHINDLER’S bloody LIST. THE PIANIST. Oscars coming out of their arse.”
In other words, sure, we don’t need another flick like this, but it’s such an easy character to craft and such an easy cred to snag, why not? Certainly easier than trying to write or direct or bring to life a character that goes deeper than the ones we’ve seen a thousand times before. Let’s just make another movie about an asshole that doesn’t care about others, and slowly, through the love of a good and patient (and flawed herself, in her own way) woman, learns to care and accept that he’s made mistakes in his past and mend fences and “come of age” and realize his emotional maturity and… fuck, man, I’ve seen it before. And better.
I will admit this: your diatribe about Generation X’ers and why they were the way they were was more interesting overall than the movie itself. So kudos.
As for that drug-induced rant at the party, it was – no question – some of the better acting that Stiller has done (compared to what? NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM?), but it was also too easy… to have drugs be the conduit seems like such a cop-out. It seems like every time a film needs a character to show their true colors or admit a deep-dark secret or do something they wouldn’t normally do or let down their armor (even their self-imposed douchey Gen-X figurative armor), the lazy path is to get them high or drunk. Baumbach is better than that.
He’s also better than not doing his research – his portrayal of the “Millenials” is as out of touch as Greenberg’s is. They are arbitrarily violent and listen to Korn and do coke? Really? That’s the best you got? You, Noah, the master of behavior and manners and observation (even when viewed through a telescope)? For shame.
That being said, I did like Gerwig quite a bit. I’d like to read that NY Times article, and I would love to write a post about acting trends of the past 10 years with you. Hell, despite your predilection towards random Nicholas Sparks references, I’d write anything with you.
As for being welcomed to existence, I’d like to thank you. But I’m too disconnected and intellectually superior and holier than thou and misanthropic and emotionally stunted and morally untouchable to care. Sigh. You see, I myself am a Gen-Xer, and existence is just so millennial.
BRIAN: Well, reading your explanation leads me to believe that I still don’t get what you’re saying. So you’re not saying that GREENBERG is a Nicholas Sparks movie, you’re saying it’s “much like” a Nicholas Sparks movie? I still got that wrong? My bad. Sometimes when you talk out of both sides of your mouth like that, I mistake it for you just talking out of your ass. Which one is it?
You write that the film tried to get you to give a shit by making Greenberg a morally intellectual misanthrope. Quite the opposite. Movies get someone to care by making them likable (or by giving them a terminal illness, either one), not by making them an asshole. If anything, Baumbach is making Greenberg hard to care about, and he and Stiller are forced to earn our emotional investment. And they do this, I might add, without a cliché redemption formula and without a hint of sentimentality. Greenberg’s sole expression of sentiment – when he tells Gerwig, “You have value” – is so awkwardly fumbled in its delivery that she takes it as an insult. I would have noticed my heart strings being pulled if I weren’t laughing at the exchange.
You claim you’ve seen this movie before. Well, sure, especially when you gut the movie the way you did in your description, leaving only its skeletal outline. Did you also reject STAR WARS because you read the same story in LORD OF THE RINGS? Did you yawn at THE MATRIX because you had already read the New Testament? Yeah, the story may have been done. Here’s what’s original about it: it’s a late coming of age movie for adults who are only grown-ups in age, and in so doing, it’s a comment on a generation whose identity is based on not selling out to grown-up ideals. That’s something new. We’ve seen seminal Generation-X works from artists in their 20’s (Stiller was in his 20’s in REALITY BITES). GREENBERG observes what happens to this particular bunch of 20-year-olds when they become 40-year-olds. It is akin to THE GRADUATE, which defined not only the wayward hippie generation, but also Mrs. Robinson’s, whose bored housewife barely missed out on the sexual revolution. GREENBERG similarly mixes two generations together in order to show the generational divide.
So I don’t know. I’m just not suspect of any buried machinations in making Greenberg a misanthrope. It seemed natural to me, but it might be due to identifying with him. Maybe it’s that. Or maybe it’s that you’re wrong and just don’t get it. Whatever. I hate you. But only because you’re a person.
GOLAN: We could go on like this all day – we often do when we disagree on a movie. I think the best thing would be for us to encourage our readers to decide for themselves.
I should point out though that you still missed my point, which isn’t that GREENBERG is like a Nicholas Sparks movie, but that when a movie (any movie) tries to elicit an easy reaction instead of developing things properly (ie. “she has Cancer – fucking cry!” or “his family was killed in the Holocaust – fucking be moved!” or “he’s an asshole – fucking care about his journey into non-assholiness!”), I hate that movie.
Beyond that, I have to point out that the line, “Sometimes when you talk out of both sides of your mouth like that, I mistake it for you just talking out of your ass” is freaking gold. It may be your best zinger since the Werther’s Original.
So I don’t know. It seemed forced to me, but it might be due to having a sunny outlook on life. Maybe it’s that. Or maybe it’s that you’re wrong and just don’t get it. Whatever. I love you. But only because you’re you.