Showdown over “Greenberg”

One of the running gags/motifs throughout “Greenberg” is the eponymous protagonist’s pissy rejection of an attitude that he insists is quintessentially L.A.—the “me me me” mentality—oblivious to the fact that no other character in the movie embodies that same self-absorption better than him. With that said, pardon me while I shill for myself: the DC column comes a day early this week and it’s about—you guessed it—“Greenberg.”

In today’s paper you’ll also find my colleague Mark Riechers’ review of the film, which I disagree with for a bunch of reasons, as should be obvious from my gushy ode.

I’m particularly stumped by Mark’s assertion that Roger is an “an irredeemable asshole.” Sure, Greenberg is a prickly prick for 98% of the movie—but when does he do anything that’s truly “irredeemable”? (I used the same adjective to describe Jeff Daniels’ infinitely more despicable character from “The Squid and the Whale.”) His only crime is his borderline solipsism, which we gradually come to see isn’t solipsism at all, but rather a symptom of something much more psychologically and sociologically complicated. Is the film’s final stretch not an explicit indication that a certain corner has been turned, that Raskolnikov is wrapping up his sentence in Siberia while Sonya is putting the vodka on ice for his imminent return?

Mark also seems to have missed much of what makes Florence such a remarkable character. I guess I just don’t see how anybody with a sense of humor or a quantum of patience could find Gerwig’s performance “obnoxious.” Mark writes:

The end performance is so natural and yet whiny, so authentic and yet pretentious it strikes a singularity point that fuses the best and worst of mumblecore performances into a single character.

Strange… I’d hardly characterize Florence as a whiner; her stunned reactions to Greenberg’s verbal abuse imply a personality at once alluringly enigmatic and painfully familiar. If anything, Greenberg is the film’s resident whiner—but unlike a Florence, he possesses the intellectual equipment to kvetch in a way that effectively evokes a great tradition of cinematic shmendriks.

I strongly encourage y’all to catch “Greenberg” before its run at Sundance ends.

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5 Responses to “Showdown over “Greenberg””

  1. Slane Says:

    Having not seen Greenberg yet, I can’t offer any opinion one way or the other. I can, however, note that Mark also disagreed about the quality of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday http://www.dailycardinal.com/arts/film-critic-free-for-all-humpday-1.792391

    Now, Greenberg isn’t mumblecore, but it does have Greta Gerwig, so perhaps Mark has a natural predisposition to disliking the film because it stars the veritable queen of mumblecore.

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      Truth. What most perplexes me is how anybody (including our colleagues at the DC) could refer to “Greenberg” as a mumblecore film.

      Mumblecore movies like “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “Funny Ha Ha” share one very important, unifying characteristic (aside from micro-budget production values): lots of improvisation—something entirely absent from “Greenberg.” “Greenberg”‘s characters are, for the most part, highly articulate, jaded 40-somethings. Every line in the film is overtly written.

      Compare Gerwig’s Florence to her Hannah from “Hannah Takes the Stairs”: the former is a role being filled, the latter is a character in the process of being invented. If anything, one of the strengths of Gerwig’s performance is how un-mumblecore-ish it is.

  2. Mark Riechers Says:

    First off, it’s an honor to rouse your ire Dan. Sorry it took me a bit to respond.

    I hate to start off with qualifications, but they seem necessary. First, I’ll spare you a defense of my mumblecore hatred, but instead pose a challenge: give me three films to throw in my Netflix queue that both typify this subgenre (shaky cams, improv dialogue, whiny 20-somethings) but are interesting films in their own right. I have yet to encounter a mumblecore film that can satisfy both criteria. They all seem blandly similar, which is largely what turns me off.
    No, I don’t believe “Greenberg” is a mumblecore film. I DO see shades of Gerwig’s mumblecore credentials creeping into the film, which is what prompted the reference.

    Finally, I need to own up to the fact that prior to seeing “Greenberg,” I’d never seen a Noah Baumbach film. I’ve meant to watch “Kicking and Screaming” and “The Squid and the Whale” for ages, but honestly I took the “Greenberg” because, like many people who see this film, my interest was peaked by the trailer alone.

    On a purely technical level, “Greenberg” was a fine film. It made great use of camera movement and musical cues to demonstrate Greenberg’s neuroses, like we see at the lawn party early in the film. But the characters–specifically what I felt was a fairly formless arc of non-story pushing them along–failed to keep me engaged in the film. And it’s very tough for me to recommend a film that doesn’t have an engaging character presence.

    I felt Gerwig relied too heavily on the improvisational quality that has made her an indie darling. My intended point was that while this allowed for a very authentic and natural performance, it limited the amount of crafted, careful characterization that could occur to give her character any shape–she remained largely a mystery. The best and worst of mumblecore cinema in a single performance, which didn’t do it for me.

    I thought Stiller was so iron-clad in his characterization as a selfish dick that his potential for change as the film progresses is limited, making him feel fairly static and at times uninteresting. My aversion to him pushed me to view Florence as the proxy for real character development in the film, in which regard I was left wanting.

    The experience left me fairly uncertain of how I felt when I left the theater, but by the time I sat down to write the review, that dissatisfaction had matured into a fairly negative review.

    When I read that you, or anyone for that matter, enjoyed the film immensely, I don’t react with disbelief. But I’m not going to pretend that I thought it was great just to go along with some auteur theory about Baumbach’s brilliance washing over the whole experience. My experience was dissatisfying, so that’s what I put to paper.

    My fear (as is yours, from the blog post) is that I could prevent people from seeing the film in my reaction. Hopefully people will see it and react for themselves. But I would be doing our readers a disservice to blindly praise a film just because it’s off the beaten Hollywood path. That’s what I would have been doing had I simply caved and said that I liked it.
    Reviews are only worth reading if they provoke discussion of films as crafted art, so it seems we’ve both succeeded this time around. We should argue more often. ☺

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      Thanks for commenting Mark!

      First, my remark regarding the notion that “Greenberg” is a mumblecore film wasn’t directed at you; rather, I was responding to the front page headline that was tacked to our lil’ duel last week. Of course, this was completely out of our hands.

      Second, I’m no great fan of mumblecore myself, but I recommend the most recent films by Joe Swanberg (“Alexander the Last”) and Andrew Bujalski (“Beeswax”), seeing as how those directors are commonly cited as two of the “movement”‘s founding fathers. “Alexander the Last” is the most formally bold mumblecore effort yet, and “Beeswax” is ridiculously charming and solid evidence that Bujalski is well on his way to becoming a formidable artist. (I think you’ll approve of “Beeswax”‘s decidedly un-mumblecore look.) And don’t conflate inarticulateness with whinyness!

      It practically goes without saying that the Baumbach movies you mentioned are must-sees, though I can’t promise that you’ll feel much sympathy for the characters in either of those films (“The Squid and the Whale” features some particularly loathsome sorts). If you found Roger Greenberg to be static in his dickishness, steer clear of “Margot at the Wedding” (which happens to be my personal fave).

      As I’ve written before, “Greenberg”—like all of Baumbach’s work to date—reeks of artifice, in that the dialogue is very similar in style to that of “Squid” and “Margot,” thereby calling attention to the fact that every single line was written and not improvised. Thus, the supposedly improvisational aspects of Gerwig’s performance are a bit lost on me. I saw it as a sensitive, subtle, superbly played role. The fundamental difference between you and I seems to be that whereas you found Florence’s enigmatic qualities frustrating, I found them intensely interesting.

      And who told you that I was a proponent of the auteur theory? I hold that the contributions of cinematographers, actors, sound and light technicians, screenwriters, producers and caterers are just as essential to a film’s constitution as the director’s vision. Especially the caterers.

  3. Mark Riechers Says:

    Wasn’t a big fan of “Alexander the Last” either, sorry–saw it last spring and was unimpressed. It’s a relief that we both prefer the “Party Down” theory of film criticism though.

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