Ben Stiller fronts this lo-fi, indie oddity that takes inspiration from one of the more obscure subgenres of recent times, mumblecore. For the uninitiated, mumblecore is a strand of DIY filmmaking which basically involves quirky twenty-somethings talking lots, often about their unconventional relationships with one another, but never actually achieving anything. It hasn’t ever produced any notable hits or stars and remains a distinctly ‘film school’ branch of cinema.
However, the mumblecore movement shouldn’t be totally written off, and is not without its charms if you enjoy movies with a beatnik beat. Greenberg, I believe, is an interesting example of this, though obviously benefits from the added budget and production values having a star like Stiller onboard brings, so cannot be technically classed as mumblecore.
The set up (to call it a plot would be pushing things) revolves around the 41-year-old Greenberg (Stiller) house-sitting in his brother’s Hollywood mansion while he takes a holiday in Vietnam. His one and only commitment is looking after Mahler, the family dog. Aware that Greenberg is basically useless, his brother tells him to contact his young assistant, Florence, should he need anything.
The laidback and affable Florence (Greta Gerwig) is the complete opposite to the narcissistic, highly-strung Greenberg, who is recovering from a mental breakdown, but as equally lost in life. The two soon start a love affair of sorts, reminiscent of the chalk-and-cheese couplings of films like Annie Hall, more driven by boredom than passion.
Greenberg also hooks up with an old friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans). The pair used to be in a band together, who were on the verge of a major record deal until Greenberg blew it, and reformed drug addict Ivan is currently on a trial separation from his ‘racist’ Portuguese wife, whom Stiller hates.
The easy going Ivan acts a similar foil for Greenberg as Florence does. Both seem able to shrug off his aggressive outbursts, unlike any of the other minor characters of note, which see him as a selfish, self-absorbed asshole. Greenberg spends most of the movie bouncing between the two and cadging lifts off them around LA (he is a non-driver).
Greenberg is a film in which quite a lot happens, but in a haphazard, patchwork way. And nothing comes to fulfilment. Things happen suddenly – the dog is taken sick, for example – but then fade away. And there are no interlinking moments that draw plot strands together. In a way, this is to mirror the random purposelessness of life. There is no grand plan drawing us together, just people mooching around, doing stuff to get by.
For some, hotwired to think there are never any true coincidences in cinema and that every scene is a signpost to something else, this will be frustrating. But once you except what Greenberg is, a film about nothing, and just relax, its charm and simplicity become an unexpected joy. If there is any message here it is that Generation X is dead and long ago sold out to Starbucks.
It is certainly a downbeat film. While not quite an anti-hero, Greenberg is a highly cynical misanthrope. “Life is wasted on people,” he says in one of his long rants/soliloquies, of which there are many. He is a compulsive letter of complaint writer.
Stiller is on fine form, playing a similar sort of neurotic character as he did in The Royal Tenenbaums, as is Ifans, who mopes about with a ‘who shot my puppy’ look and phlegmatic body language, quite against his usual wildman type. But it is Gerwig that really steals the show and turns what could have been a self-indulgent slog into a light and airy picture.
Her Florence is so perfectly pitched it seems as if she’s not even acting at all. Beautiful in an unkempt, non-perfect way, with a geeky sort of cool, Gerwig floats through the movie with her heart on her sleeve.
Florence is vulnerable because she doesn’t care. She’s just another average person whose dreams outweigh her hopes. But far from feeling sorry for herself, she allows her lackadaisical but ‘can do’ attitude to define her. This contradiction is something Greenberg can’t quite work out, and he flits from being magnetically drawn to her to openly hostile.
Gerwig is renowned as the ‘queen of mumblecore’, and there seems little doubt that writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid And The Wale) wrote the part specifically for her. Expect this to be seen as her breakout performance a few years down the line (it is rumoured she’s in line to play Russell Brand’s love interest in a remake of Arthur).
A quick mention should go to the score by James Murphy, of ultra-hip band LCD Soundsystem fame. It’s pretty essential that these sort of high quirk alt movies have a cool rock’n’roll soundtrack to match. But Murphy really has done a brilliant job, with many of the compositions original, and it is incredibly atmospheric.
Greenberg is certainly not a film for everyone, and people expecting to see a knockabout Ben Stiller comedy will be disappointed. In fact, anyone wanting to see a film that has any grounding in traditional narrative conventions will be disappointed. But I found it a rather touching a beautiful film, and one that has grown higher in my estimation since my viewing.
An enquired taste then, maybe, but one that can also be savoured.