Los Angeles seems to, more than any other place, harbor the sort of people that let their past cripple them. Narcissists of self-annihilation; they wear their wounds on their tongues so they can suck everyone else into their universe and take them down as well. They pull people in requiring companionship, and push people away because they’re afraid they might destroy something good. The characters in Greenberg have the capability to become these sorts of people. Each character clings to a past pain, whether it’s from a relationship they just got out of (a very typical thing in LA), to friendships that have floundered. Considering this serious and somewhat depressing trajectory, Greenberg is really very funny.
I wasn’t sure about Noah Baumbach at first. His film The Squid and the Whale, was constructed as a look at reality and played far too quirky for my taste; the writer in Baumbach undermined the director. Margot at the Wedding, I was on board for, as Buambach didn’t pull his punches by allowing his characters to digress into balls of symptoms. Greenberg is even better. Like the title character Roger Greenberg, who Ben Stiller is riveting as, train wreck riveting, the movie is stripped away of all pretense. There’s no hook. There’s no easy out. The characters aren’t forced upon you as being good or bad, right or wrong. They’re really interesting people, who you can laugh at and with because they’re fighting towards something, even if they don’t know what it is.
So what is Greenberg up to? Nothing. He comes to LA to do nothing. Inevitably something happens, as this is life and things happen in life. But stuck at 40 is he willing to compromise who he is for something that has promise? That something is with his brother’s assistant, Florence, played by the profoundly talented Greta Gerwig. Paralleling this is his friend played by Rhys Ifans, who finally may be embracing a life he never wanted. Something Greenberg still may be unwilling to do. There’s intrinsic beauty and depth in these characters that will forever be less than perfect, no matter how close they become to each other…they will always accept each other; and that makes for a gem of a film, and perhaps the reason why people say it’s “life affirming”. You’ll have to decide for yourself.
That I’ve already seen performances, comedies (Hot Tub Time Machine) and movies (How to Train Your Dragon, Mother) that I like more than anything I saw last year makes me excited for the rest of the year, and hoping the bar doesn’t drop over the summer.