Ben Stiller takes a turn for the somewhat serious in Greenberg, director Noah Baumbach’s fifth film. Recently released from inpatient psychiatric care, Roger Greenberg (Stiller) goes to LA to house-sit for his successful brother Phillip (Chris Messina), despite the fact that he doesn’t quite have his bearings back. Phillip’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), ends up helping him with his day-to-day items like grocery shopping, taking care of the dog, and driving Roger around. In Baumbach’s distinctive dry wit and despite a decade-plus age gap, Roger and Florence fall in love over a mutual sense of feeling lost in a world too big for their modest aspirations (she’s kind of trying to be a singer, and he’s focused on doing nothing).
The basic scenario repeats itself from previous Baumbach works: A familial drama with despicable characters too self-absorbed to see each other in any meaningful way, the protagonist fucks up in a way that makes him/her reevaluate their personal relationships, and then Baumbach offers a sort of abbreviated redemption that never goes far enough to redeem as a scene, and the characters never do enough to deserve it. The formula has worked once in the past with the cast of The Squid & the Whale, making that volatile family capable of growth and redemption in ways that characters in his other films never are. A film certainly does not require redemption or any sort of epiphany to be successful, but Baumbach’s films cry for it. The implication being that there is redemption available for everyone, even the bigots and the arrogant among us.
Here, and even more so in Baumbach’s last, the abysmal Margot at the Wedding, this redemption feels unearned. There is no indication that progress has been made in the lives of his characters. The film implies an epiphany moment in the final scene where the film, as with Baumbach’s other films, cuts away to credits before the drama has the opportunity to emerge in the character’s moment of redemption. The audience is left to decide if this was a turning point or if there is nothing but false hopes in the character’s moment of self-awareness.
The intended effect is provocation, an auteur-esque calling-card that was used to great effect by European art-house directors in the 60s and, more recently, in the mumblecore scene by directors like Andrew Bujalski. When Bujalski implements this tactic in the closing moments of Beeswax, it’s a punch to the jaw. You know he will cut the final scene short, but it could happen at any moment. His characters are imperfect, yet they are still human and capable of empathy. Baumbach can’t let go of his characters in the same way Bujalski can: he shows too much to cut a scene short and simply leave the audience hanging, and he also doesn’t allow the scene to linger long enough to surprise our expectations or satisfy the thrust of the script. And either would have been sufficient.
Ultimately, Stiller is funny, and Gerwig does a wonderful job in her first big-budget drama. And, despite the negativity, the direction and the cinematography are quite good. Cinematographer Harris Savides employs a particular kind of close-up profile shot, revealing characters in flux, beautifully rendered. There is depth and subtlety to these moments that reveal more than dialogue could ever hope to. But it is the writing here that, while very funny at times, simply doesn’t do enough (which could mean doing far less). It seems that Baumbach is stuck, both here — with co-writer Jennifer Jason Leigh — and in Margot at the Wedding, trying to replicate the brilliance of his Squid script to no avail.