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Panhandling Misery

By Brian Prisco | Film | March 31, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | March 31, 2010 |

I’ve been fooled again. From the trailer, Greenberg looked like it might be a sort of angry young hipster version of As Good As It Gets. A bitter malcontent artist — well, carpenter in this case — finds unlikely love in pursuing a much younger woman. Instead, Noah Baumbach thumb-gouges our eyes with another misery fest, a keening melancholic dirge of scattered depressive goings-on that’s like rifling through a photo album of small children identifying their horribly mauled parents’ corpses. The film is so choked of any joy you might occasionally laugh like when a dying cancer patient lets out a juicy fart; it’s so fucking arid, you’ll do anything for a giggle. It’s a film about unpleasant people barely existing as they carom from unpleasantness to unpleasantness. Life for those lost in their middle years, still adrift in the sea of “what should I be,” is awful enough without Baumbach wasting our time holding up a maudlin mirror and showing us the dark circles from weeping of our own misery. I can’t imagine that there’s an audience for emo-porn, but I guess people who cut themselves to feel alive probably pick the scabs to rehash the good times. Greenberg is essentially a big-screen version of those breakup poems loners scribble on bar napkins. You don’t show those to other people, you burn them with candles while listening to The Cure in the safety of your own winebox.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) has just gotten out of a mental institution and is now living in his well-to-do brother’s (Chris Messina) Los Angeles home. He’s building a doghouse for their dog while they are on vacation in Vietnam. At one point, he was a musician whose misanthropic greed got his band’s record deal scrapped. He tries to reconnect with the old band members (Mark Duplass and Rhys Ifans), and he tries to reconnect with his old girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who shares the story credit with Baumbach), but nobody can find common ground with him anymore. And who can blame them? They’ve all moved on, gotten moderately successful careers, started families, and achieved some small satisfaction. Greenberg spends all his time bitching about the minutia of life, to the point that he constantly writes spiteful letters to corporations and editorials to newspapers. His wailing about the cruelty and stupidity of the world has created a bubble of misery around him nobody wants to tolerate.

The only person who manages to spend any semblance of time with him is Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s personal assistant. She’s a fucking trainwreck who lets people plow over her — but such is the nature of a PA. Florence is in the period of her life where it’s still somewhat permissible to wander and struggle. So this seems to be the only common ground on which Florence can build a relationship with the diminutive troll 15 years her elder. However, Greenberg’s such a fucking space case that his misery and freakouts push her away. Even when Florence stumbles into intimacy, Greenberg berates her with his insecurity. And Florence, who at 25 has her shit together so much more soundly then this invective spewing toddler of a manchild, continues to allow him back in to her life.

But you get the jist of Greenberg in about 10 minutes, so to sit through the rest of the film is a practice in endurance. Greenberg is scripted like an LA romance where they plucked out the handsome boyish male lead and replaced him with an unwilling Gollum, who shoves everyone away, and then bemoans the fact that nobody wants to talk to him. It doesn’t help matters that while Stiller shows some massive chops, Greenberg is such an unpleasant character you can’t bear to watch him. Gerwig needs to go back to the minor leagues because she’s still coming off as the spacey-kinda-hippy-who’ll-take-her-top-off-for-a-sprouted-wheat-bagel. She’s made a career playing the same listless ethereal in every flick. Other than that, the rest of the cast is basically a bunch of indie darlings slumming it.

I really don’t want to waste any more time dealing with Baumbach’s race to out-morose Atom Egoyan. When paired with Wes Anderson, Baumbach’s woe cuts brilliantly with his thoughtful loners. On his own, Baumbach’s flicks just create this storm cloud of misery that makes you pray for sunlight. Hell, I like Eeyore, but I don’t want to endure a Spaulding Gray monologue of his grousing for an hour and a half. When you have yet to ground yourself, life can be miserable and confusing. But I don’t need some smarmy arthouse douche reminding me about it.