Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Noah Baumbach is inside my head

You know a script is good when you find yourself nodding along with most of its observations. I'm not talking about a horror, a thriller or a fantasy film here -- those films tend to be less "idea-oriented" in their dialogue. No, I'm talking about talky relationship dramedies, the specialty of writer-director Noah Baumbach.

I've been a big fan of Baumbach's work in the past. Before his noteworthy films of the 2000s -- The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding -- came along, I was a passionate devotee of Kicking and Screaming, his 1995 debut, which is still my favorite. The only film of his that I didn't think really worked was Mr. Jealousy (1997), though I'm only just discovering now that he had a movie in 2000 called Highball, which I obviously haven't seen.

Anyway, I saw Baumbach's latest, Greenberg, yesterday, and I was nodding along like a mo-fo. I won't go so far as to say it "spoke to me," although that's probably true. The main reason I don't want to say that is that Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, is a character who just emerged from a brief hospitalization following a nervous breakdown, and he treats people like shit -- not because he's a bad person, but because he's so inwardly focused that he doesn't recognize how his behavior affects other people. So if I said it "spoke" to me, wouldn't that mean I see a lot of Greenberg in myself? (Whether or not I secretly see a lot of Greenberg in myself is another matter.)

So I'll just talk about the parts that I found surprisingly astute, some of which because they described an actual thing I actually did. And I'll try to be as abstract as I can, so it doesn't ruin very much of the movie -- I'm sure many of you haven't seen it yet.

1) There's a terrific exchange between Greenberg and Rhys Ifans' Ivan, in which Ivan says "Youth is wasted on the young." Greenberg rejoins with "I'll go you one further. Life is wasted on ... people." Isn't that the truth? Haven't you ever thought that if only people were better at being people, their lives would be so much more fulfilling, and they'd truly be able to suck the marrow out of whatever was in front of them?

2) Florence -- Greenberg's brother's assistant, played wonderfully by Greta Gerwig -- tells Greenberg that "Hurt people hurt people." If you read the first "hurt" as and adjective and the second as a verb, you'll get the meaning of her saying -- and its brilliant simplicity.

3) At one point in the movie, one character is taking another character to get an abortion, and the first says to the second, "Whatever you want. It's your day." Which is of course a ridiculous sentiment -- usually when something is "your day," it's a birthday or a day of celebration, or something like that. Of course, you can also kind of see what the first character meant. My wife and I laughed because I always tell her she can decide what to watch on TV or what to eat for dinner because "It's your day." The first couple times I said it, I really meant it, and the situation was appropriately celebratory, or she was deserving of a reward. Since then, it's just become an inside joke.

4) Greenberg meets a character who's about to fly to Australia -- which in itself means something for my wife and me, because she's Australian. But the next part of the exchange took it one step further. Greenberg asks, "Isn't that like a 20-hour flight?" "No, it's 14," answers the other character. Greenberg: "Oh, so like seven movies." My jaw nearly dropped. Not only is that the exact thought process I would use to determine how I would pass the time over 14 hours during which I'd be accompanied by my choice of movies, but I did actually do that on my flight home from Australia in January -- I watched exactly seven movies. Read about it here if you're interested.

5) Greenberg and his ex-girlfriend (played by Baumbach's actual wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who developed the story with Baumbach) are having an awkward conversation in a restaurant, and Greenberg tells her, "My dog is sick." She immediately responds with "My mom is sick," and Greenberg doesn't respond to that, but just goes on with his next statement about the dog. Then about 30 seconds later realizes that he's been self-absorbed, and hasn't asked any follow up questions about her mother. He does so lamely, without actually asking any questions: "I'm sorry your mother is sick." Both characters are actually guilty of extreme inward focus in this scenario -- in ways that I know I've been guilty of in past conversations. First there's Jason Leigh's Beth, who engages in an act of conversational one-upsmanship that seems to be very common with Angelenos. It's that thing where something you said reminds me of something in my world, so instead of being a good listener on your thing, I try to tell you about my thing. It's narcissistic and instinctive more than it is premeditated. However, once Beth committed that sin, and a sick mother was on the table, Greenberg should have asked about the sick mother, because human trumps pet in this scenario. But he didn't, he just plowed onward. Of course, there was enough of him that realized the faux pas that he lamely circled back to her sick mother later on. Well played, Baumbach -- very true-to-life.

6) Greenberg and Florence have a conversation about their "imitations of other people." Greenberg tells Florence that he and Ivan call each other "man," not because it's something they'd actually do, but because they're imitating/making fun of people who would actually do that. Then Florence tells a story where she and a friend go to a bar frequented by frat guys, eager to mockingly play the role of slutty floozies, and end up going home with two particularly fratty, cologne-obsessed guys. In both instances, the line is blurred -- are they imitating a different kind of person, or are they actual versions of that person? And even if they definitely started out by imitating, at what point does the imitation become the reality?

I'm sure there were a handful of other little moments that struck me in Greenberg, but let's just pay Baumbach an additional compliment and say that he overstuffed the film -- I couldn't keep track of all the believable details that worked for me.

And besides, I'm doing my best to keep my posts a little shorter. Because this is something I definitely share in common with Mr. Greenberg, if you can read the fine print in the poster above: I've got a lot on my mind.


Don Handsome said...

Glad to see your treatment of this film...I was struck by so many details in this film as well - and only a few of them are noted in your piece. There is just so much real sentiment in it, and its rare to see characters on screen that: 1)share in real sentiment with their audience (you get the impression watching Baumbach's films that his characters have realized deep pasts that sometimes play a roll in the film, but mostly exist just to make that character as real as possible); and 2) are willing and/or able to vocalize those sentiments in a well defined manner (and while Baumbach's characters are mostly very adept at speaking and quipping, this isn't what I'm talking about. I'm referring to their commitment to their own feelings, and their willingness to commit to them (even if they later change their mind) within the film. Typically you see characters committing to unpopular sentiments, only to buffer that commitment with a "but" or some other word or statement that gives them an out. In Baumbach's films - especially in Greenberg - the characters full on commit, and they don't waffle, until they actually change their mind.)

Greenberg is a great film. And I'm with you on Kicking and Screaming as well.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Don. Yeah, good observations. One thing that struck me while watching Greenberg is how certain directors are so recognizable as themselves in their films, Baumbach being one. For that reason I have a hard time ranking his last three films in particular. I would probably have to go like this:

1) The Squid and the Whale
2) Greenberg
3) Margot at the Wedding

But each film contains valuable insights into the human condition, and valuable bits of the essential Baumbach.

I like also your reference to their histories. The non-signed record deal keeps getting referenced, and it's clear how it shaped who they are now, but otherwise it doesn't have a really overt function in the plot. Well played again.