October 6, 2010

Justify My Netflix: Greenberg

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)


Today's movie: Greenberg, 2010 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because this latest uncomfortable dramedy by Noah Baumbach (who I was already a salivating fan of, because of masterpieces like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding) really hits home particularly intensely this time: it's the story of a single, childless, misanthropic 40-year-old failed artist and near-total trainwreck, who is so intellectually arrogant and insulting that most of his former friends can't even stand by now to be in the same room as him, with (in good Baumbach fashion) it actually being the small, snide comments at the edges of other people's conversations that tell you more about Greenberg than anything he directly says or does himself, as he spends a month dogsitting for his wealthy vacationing brother in LA and tries desperately not to reflect on his slowly imploding life.

The reality: Well, I loved it, although I'll be the first to admit that not every person will, even those who usually share the same artistic sentiments as me; for while I interpreted this when first watching it a few weeks ago as a mostly laser-precise and insightful examination of aging egotistical nerds and their complete inability to either change with the times or even admit their own glaring faults, there were several CCLaP readers over at Facebook angrily calling this the usual Baumbach dour hipster shtick, a tired look yet again at insufferable Gen-X douchebags stuck in perpetual adolescence no matter how old they actually get, a woe-is-me filmmaker whose main message always seems to be that life is sh-t so why even bother trying to be a decent person? Granted, I don't look at Baumbach's movies nearly as cynically, mostly because he goes to so much trouble to make the majority of the characters as relatively normal and happy as you or me or our friends; so to have just one or two of those cast members be such emotional disasters (in this case, not only Ben Stiller as Greenberg but 'mumblecore' veteran Greta Gerwig as his bizarre love interest, his brother's twenty-something hippie-like personal assistant, whose problem is not that she's given up on the arts like Greenberg but simply that she's not very good, and who sleeps with random men entirely too often and always for the exact wrong reasons) clearly demonstrates that this is a character study we're watching, a portrait of a few fascinating if not infuriating individuals out there in the world somewhere, not a general indictment of the entire human race.

But Lord, I see why people get that impression from Baumbach's movies, not only from him being so good at it but also from him revisiting the theme over and over in nearly all his films, a fascination which as we discovered in the autobiographical Squid and the Whale stems back to the fact that his real-life father was this exact same type of arrogant, intellectually mean-spirited yet slowly failing artist himself, one-time award-winning academic author Jonathan Baumbach who by the 2000s has fallen into near-complete obscurity. When a pitch-perfect Stiller, then, goes on one of his cringe-inducing tirades about how everyone on the planet sucks except poor little victimized perfect him, I love it for the note of recognition it strikes, and for how Baumbach uses his minor characters to clearly point to the steps that will let anyone with that condition slowly let go of all those world-hating neuroses, making it instructional and illuminating to me even if it never is for Greenberg himself. (And along those lines, this movie is also a highly astute and timely examination of the phenomenon these days of middle-aged hipster indie-rock Gen-Xers finally having kids in large numbers, including the instantly classic line, "All the parents at this birthday party are dressed like kids, and all the kids are dressed like superheroes.") But I can easily see why another person might hate this movie for the same reasons I loved it, and I wouldn't blame that person for hating it either, meaning that you should tread lightly when it comes to whether or not you should watch it too. Use your best judgment, and don't send me any angry emails if you end up turning it off a half-hour later in disgust.

Strangest piece of trivia: Many of the cast members are related to other people in the entertainment industry, starting with the lead actors Stiller (son of Jerry Stiller) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (daughter of Vic Morrow, also Baumbach's wife and co-writer of the script), including Gwyneth Paltrow's brother, Julien Temple's son, James Franco's brother, Dustin Hoffman's son and David Mamet's daughter.

Worth your time? If you're the right kind of audience member, yes

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:42 PM, October 6, 2010. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |