Greenberg is a film which grows upon reflection. Was it twenty minutes too long as I supposed at the time? Was it a sprinkling of vignettes, rather than a deft gathering of beautifully shot scenes? Was it really lacking the very ‘soul’ it says it has in the trailer?
Upon reflection, Greenberg is hard to slate. It is shot beautifully in a kind of seventies semi-sepia which captures the painfully regretful mood of a central character who can’t move beyond an unsatisfactory past. In Ben Stiller as the eponymous lead, Roger Greenberg, it features a believably neurotic forty-something recovering from a nervous breakdown, in the depths of a midlife crisis. Noah Baumbach, the director, has that ability that only the most skilled directors have of holding a shot a half second longer than seems comfortable with the effect of capturing, or creating, a moment which feels as if it should be private. As well as amplifying the underlying emotion of the scene, the device gives the film an almost documentary authenticity.
But the feeling of being a voyeur to this hyper-realism is not altogether comfortable. Perhaps it is because the overriding dynamic in the relationship between the main protagonists is one of awkwardness, leaving you with the low-grade terror you might feel when sharing a lift with an acquaintance just too familiar to ignore. It is not by accident, either. Baumbach deliberately recreates the kind of suffocating atmosphere which characterises films like The Royal Tenenbaums or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Tenenbaums (incidentally featuring Stiller) is important because, with Wes Anderson as director, it is guided by the master of the awkwardly still film with a soul. But Eternal Sunshine is an equally instructive comparison. In Jim Carrey it stars a man with a Stiller-esque history of madcap rubber faced comedy, which he has sought successfully to transcend. Greenberg’s ambling plot of a feckless, unlikeable and vulnerable man who housesits for his brother in LA, spending most of his time writing letters of complaint to big companies, sees Stiller impressively transcending his history too. But, where Carrey’s best performances tap into that well of likeablility and good-humour which bubbles through every one of his roles, Stiller’s ‘factory setting’ appears to be self-absorption, anal deliberateness, and an inability to laugh at himself.
It adds to the discomfiture of the movie that Stiller, in effect, appears to be playing himself. It also adds to the reflection that it is really rather good. But does that mean, as the trailer suggests, that it has ‘soul, heart and a sense of humour’? Certainly there are funny moments, particularly when Roger Greenberg reverts to Stiller-style angry impotence, or in almost any scene he plays alongside best friend Ivan, the excellently understated Rhys Ifans.
For soul and heart, however, you have to look to the brilliant performance of Greta Gerwig whose portrayal of 25-year-old housekeeper Florence, Greenberg’s movingly un-self-prepossessing love interest is as soulful as an Otis Redding record. Her stillness throughout reveals her to be an actress of potently uncomplicated technique; her character’s song in the near empty club is laden with heart, sadness and hope; and her gentle affection for the flailing title character are arrestingly tender, even while their sex scenes are almost too awkward to watch. These scenes – alongside Roger’s own trips to the vet, to a birthday dinner and to two house parties – do not add up to a conventional plot. But Gerwig’s performance resonates with enough heart to string it together into a meaningful enough narrative.
So yes, even though it remains 20 minutes too long, Greenberg has heart and soul and structure and a sense of humour. It is not nearly as soulful as Tenemaums, or as charming as Eternal Sunshine. But on reflection it is rather good.