Wednesday, January 26, 2011

#10 of 2010: Greenberg

Like The Fighter, another regionally specific, humor-spiked American character study that I wouldn't trade for anything, Greenberg shows a marvelous knack for shifting a plausibly bonded calico of characters onto and off the screen, gathering them together and separating them out. Rich, consistent rewards are generated from scenes where we observe group interaction from a sufficient distance to make our own choices of whom to watch and our own surmises about the relative distance between characters. These make for subtle, savory feasts of personality revealed through behavior, but the movie is equally adept at zeroing in on single characters or pairs and digging incisively into the particulars of what makes them tick or, more often, not tick. Even more than The Fighter, Greenberg stays fresh and surprising with its dramatic choreography: it's never clear who will linger within or disappear from Roger Greenberg's ornery orbit. Characters who seem like one-offs return for tangy comedy or tough confrontation; others thread themselves in and out as semi-regular mainstays; the female lead, around whom the film opens and with whom a central relationship begins to coalesce, goes missing for a significant passage, within an astutely engineered narrative context.

The ensemble plays as richly as in a Leigh or Demme film, without abandoning that prickliness and starch that Baumbach has been perfecting. Laugh lines ("You let a mental patient go down on you?") and quiet heartbreakers (Rhys Ifans, supplying the correct name of his son) are equally within the purview of Baumbach's deepest, nimblest, most surprising ensemble so far. Roger's aggressive unapproachability is funny, poignant, and intimidating, not unlike Mark Zuckerberg's in The Social Network, but more discomfiting and even infuriating, often to himself, without topical rhetoric or simplified arcs of romantic yearning to cushion the blow of such exacting portraiture. Compare Greenberg to Coppola's Somewhere, and you see how a story of L.A.-specific drift and disappointment doesn't need to hit the same nail quite so frequently, or so fully on the head; Savides's light proves evocative and elevating of the film without feeling so obviously recruited into blunt directorial framings and conceits. Compare Greenberg to Black Swan and note that a seemingly objective camera can perform a dissection of a highly aggravated mind without resorting to hysteria, or equating fearlessness with hyperbole. Am I making Greenberg seem special only by running down its peers, framing them as reflections of this film rather than autonomous entities? Apologies; Roger makes that reflex contagious. I skipped Greenberg in theaters because the ads didn't convince me I needed to attend; since debuting on DVD, it's remained a pebble I can't get out of my mental shoe, and don't want to. (capsule review)

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Blogger Robert Hamer said...

I preferred The Fighter to Greenberg, but both are excellent films.

I agree that the subtlety and lack of judgement from Noah Baumbach is a major strength, much like the success of The Squid and the Whale (even if that earlier film hit me much harder on a personal level). I had never even heard of Greta Gerwig before she wowed me here, and I'd love to see Rhys Ifans get more good roles like this. But just when I thought I was going to like Ben Stiller after this film, he goes on to star in Little Fockers.

6:11 PM, January 26, 2011  
Blogger Robert said...

Really a great choice. It's not often that you see a film that seems so lived in, so complex, and makes you honest-to-god understand some truth about the world that you didn't before.

6:12 PM, January 26, 2011  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

So it's won over the voting bloc of Roberts then! I co-sign everything both of you guys said.

6:13 PM, January 26, 2011  
Anonymous Guy said...

As with all your best writing, you've made me want to revisit a film I've already seen twice. I'll never love it quite as much as you do, but a second look really awakened me to the film's careful, almost Jenga-like countering and balancing of Roger and Florence's insecurities; it's perhaps Baumbach's most architected character study to date, which is not to say I don't slightly prefer the more chaotic rhythms of Squid and Margot.

Because you know how I much I adore your writing, I hope you won't mind if I say the Black Swan comparison strikes a slightly false note, not least because the films' destinations are so disparate: the one so purposefully pursues hysteria that to chide Libatique's camera for same doesn't entirely compute for me. The Somewhere point, though, is bang-on, even if I have a lot more time for Coppola's affected airiness on this occasion.

6:22 PM, January 26, 2011  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Guy: You're absolutely right about the opportunism and incongruity of the Black Swan reference. What it is is an adverse reaction to hearing Black Swan endlessly described as a "psychological thriller" or even a "character study" when it seems like absolutely nothing of either sort. I would reiterate your point about Black Swan as a way to say the movie's project is hysterical but never psychological; it is a demonstration of tremendously ostentatious direction built on a series of utterly familiar archetypes, presented as such in the structure of a fable. But "psychological" often doubles in review-speak, for no truly good reason, as a synonym for mad, ostentatious, de-realized style. (Note: I am sure I myself have done this.)

I feel perversely compelled to recover phrases like "psychological thriller" on behalf of movies like Greenberg, where you are genuinely on edge about who is going to do or say what to whom, and at what moment and with what motive or fallout, all of which serves to furnish an increasingly complex dossier of the insecurities and specific personalities of people like Roger or Florence. Comparing this movie to Aronofsky's is an odd exercise in comparing apples to oranges, but, if this makes any sense, I think the apple in this case is the film too many people mis-identify as the orange, and vice versa.

1:00 AM, January 27, 2011  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I should clarify that when I say that Black Swan's "project is hysterical but never psychological; it is a demonstration of tremendously ostentatious direction built on a series of utterly familiar archetypes, presented as such in the structure of a fable," I intend that not as implicit criticism but as a neutral description of how the film strikes me as working. Whatever my likes and dislikes about that film, the premise I am trying to describe is perfectly viable as a way to make a great movie. I just don't think the psychology of Nina Sayers is what is interesting or, frankly, credible in the movie, which feels entirely plotted in a series of giant brush strokes that I don't equate with "psychology" or "character study." Greenberg feels like a nuanced dissection of a kind that, I agree with you, is not what Aronofsky's film is really after.

If I'm being too parochial about what "psychology" can mean in relation to cinema, which is entirely possible, it's only out of over-compensatory urge to rescue that term from only being affiliated with a certain kind of flagrantly externalizing aesthetic.

1:21 AM, January 27, 2011  
Anonymous Essay Writers said...

Great post. i have no word to express in words that how much i like that post. Thanks for sharing.

3:23 AM, January 27, 2011  
Blogger James T said...

You're gonna write posts like that for every one of your top-10 films?

!! :) !!

I was watching a documentary the other day about Tennessee Williams and I was so angry at how sad the critics' reaction to his post-Sweet Bird of Youth work made him. It's nice to have a reminder of how articulately a critic can praise a piece of work he/she loves and how his/her criticism of the ones he/she doesn't (or at least, not a lot) can be constructive and not aggressively dismissive. Even if Coppola and Aronofsky don't strike me as delicate as Williams.

5:28 AM, January 27, 2011  
Blogger David said...

I completely agree. Loved this one, and I adored the way it ended. Additionally, Greta Gerwig is something else.

3:32 PM, January 28, 2011  
Anonymous NYFA Photography said...

thanks for your view on Greenberg, will check it out

9:23 AM, February 01, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think the "it's never clear who will linger within or disappear from Roger Greenberg's ornery orbit" is more true here than in The Fighter. It's a very solid portrayal of an almost middle aged mast who is lost, preferring a subtle touch over the dramatic. This was the movie I was quoting during the spring/summer with its "mumblecore" comic relief. "Why do you never have anything good to drink here." "So and so is a slut."

Stiller's working with Baumbach again, right? Excited!

2:01 PM, February 06, 2011  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

I keep on returning to Rhys Ifans performance probably because it's the most surprising for me. (He usually sees so annoyingly literal, something he avoids here.)

I like Greenberg AND Somewhere (I find it difficult to choose between them). I'll defend Somewhere, though, by saying that its main character isn't as devoted to getting a rise out of those around him like Greenberg which would explain why it comes off as so insular in its potential repetitiveness at times.

11:54 AM, February 07, 2011  

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