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July 13, 2010

8

DVD of the Week – Review of Greenberg (2010)

by HELEN GEIB

There are a lot of shots of people in cars in Greenberg. Director Noah Baumbach keeps the camera close to the characters in the car shots. Usually it’s an unseen passenger, shifting its gaze from person to person to follow the conversation. Sometimes it looks at them straight-on through the windshield or car door window, capturing the person and the distorted reflection of what they see.

People in cars is part of the familiar iconography of Los Angeles-set movies, an immediately understood metaphor for isolation and rootlessness. The metaphor fits Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) to a tee. Greenberg- nearly everyone calls him “Greenberg,” the presumed relic of a youthful affectation- is a disagreeable misanthrope, his isolation self-wrought. An LA native, he fled to New York City some fifteen or more years ago. He’s back ostensibly to house-sit for his brother while the brother and his family are on a long trip out of the country. It’s a timely change of scene; Greenberg was recently hospitalized for an unspecified mental breakdown.

He stopped driving when he moved to New York and refuses, or is unable to drive during his visit home. Not driving is a problem in LA, and Greenberg’s solution is to treat his longtime friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s personal assistant/nanny, as his personal taxi service. His selfishness is on full display; he expects them to be always available and never says thank you.

It’s also a useful plot device, as Greenberg’s dependence forces him into intimacy and conversation- being stuck in a car with someone makes him anxious and loosens his tongue. When he gets out of a car to continue a fraught conversation through the open window, the car door forming a protective barrier, the image nearly encapsulates his emotional guardedness.

Greenberg and most of the people he left behind are still nursing old grievances after all these years. Ivan is one of the few who isn’t. The dynamics of the friendship are highly revealing of Greenberg’s personality and character. The revelations begin with their reunion meeting, when Greenberg pours Ivan a very tall Scotch to match his own, blithely heedless of the fact his friend has been clean and sober since checking himself into rehab more than a decade before. In contrast, it’s typical of Ivan that what upsets him is not his friend’s constant complaints and slights, but the fact Greenberg didn’t call him when he had his breakdown. He might have been able to help, and it would have been an opportunity for them to become closer. Greenberg’s silent response makes it clear the thought never even crossed his mind. The friendship ends when Ivan finally can’t take it anymore. It’s a sad conclusion, but the dominant response is wonderment that it lasted so long.

The friendship “break up” story is paralleled by Greenberg and Florence’s hesitant movements in the direction of falling in love. Florence has appealing qualities and is easily a more sympathetic figure than Greenberg, but she carries her own psychological baggage. Her extreme self-effacement is pitiable and at times, extremely aggravating as well. Some of the time it seems like they could be good for each other, and some of the time it seems like they’re both too messed up to make it work. The film is reticent about their chances as a couple, but it does end on a hopeful note. Doing a favor for someone is a big step for Greenberg.

Other new releases this week: The Bounty Hunter, Chloe, The Greatest, Our Family Wedding


8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Winters
    Jul 13 2010

    I liked your review. Personally I liked the film simply because I loved the flawed character of Greenberg, which I found to be completely believable and relatable. I forgot to mention it in my review, but I loved the high angle shot showing Greenberg walking silently around alone in a circle at party while everyone else around him is talking and enjoying themselves. It was a strong visual.

    Your comments about how Greenberg’s personality is exposed through his treatment of his friends is right on target. I still didn’t like the Ivan character though. Maybe its because I saw things too much from Greenberg’s perspective. I think it started when Greenberg told him he wanted to watch the film ‘Gung Ho’ and see it from today’s perspective and Ivan didn’t understand what he was getting at. I’ve had friends like that too, who didn’t get what I was saying, so that’s when I immediately starting tuning Ivan out.

  2. Nir Shalev
    Jul 13 2010

    It’s funny, I just watched it last week and only liked the Ivan character. His character has a lot realism, he seemed to exist properly in the real world; just as much as Greenberg does but he’s not as nuts so I could relate to him more. Ivan and Greenberg’s characters worked very well as opposites. I found the film really slow, maybe too slow for the most part and like the second half much more than I did the first half. It was a tough film to watch because the trailers made it seem like a humanist drama/comedy and it ended up being an abstract film about a nut job whom everyone can relate to. The editing was abstract and it always, even for me takes some getting used to because it’s not European filmmaking. But that’s just me.

    I hated Baumbach’s last film “Margot at the Wedding” because it was criminally slow paced and it lacked any kind of pathos or comedy. “The Squid and the Whale” is still his masterpiece because it was close to Woody Allen quality, in terms of quiet comedy and brilliant mumblings.

  3. Richard Winters
    Jul 13 2010

    I think that is why I didn’t like the Ivan character was because he was too normal. Normal characters tend to bore me unless they are put into an unusual or interesting situation. Maladjusted, or screw-up characters, that are still portrayed in a beleivable way, tend to be more interesting and memorable, at least to me.

  4. Nir Shalev
    Jul 14 2010

    What’s interesting is that Greenberg and Florence are the oddballs. He sometimes seems too old for her but regardless, they are crazy with or without each other. I think that they’re just crazy enough to warrant the rest of the cast being normal. 0_<

    It reminds me of "Rachel Getting Married". I liked Ann Hathaway's character because she was down to Earth and I hated every single other character throughout the film because they were all truly unlikable, even psychotic.

  5. Richard Winters
    Jul 14 2010

    I’ll have to watch ‘Rachel Getting Married’ and let you know what I think. Ann Hathaway is an attractive and good actress.

  6. Nir Shalev
    Jul 14 2010

    She deserved the Oscar nom but the film itself, be it a good one annoyed me because every character in it was unlikeable. I do believe that that was the point of the film but, regardless it got on my nerves.

  7. May 19 2011

    Well saw it the other day and while portions of the movie are slow the concepts presented are interesting, but they’re never fully fleshed-out. It’s also not for everyone but I have to say I did like how well this guy was developed. Good review, check out mine when you can please!

  8. Helen
    May 20 2011

    A year out it’s the characterization and acting that’s stuck with me.

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