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Not sure what they are laughing at, but I can guarantee it isn't this film's script.

I’ve fallen a little behind on write-ups.  Probably because most of the awards fare I’ve recently seen hasn’t really been all that inspiring.  Greenberg is no exception.  I agree with a lot of what John has to say (other than I can’t completely write off Noah Baumbauch because I really did love The Squid and the Whale), so I’ll try to avoid repeating him.

You know how people talk a lot about Oscar bait?  As in any prestige flick about the Holocaust or costume drama involving British aristocracy?  I think there’s such a thing a Independent Spirit bait.  And if so, not only is Greenberg it, but as John called, the IS nominating committee fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.  So what is Independent Spirit bait?  A movie with a mainstream star proving his mettle (here Ben Stiller), supported by well-known names in the indie world (Noah Baumbach, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Greta Gerwig), and where the story isn’t anything more than someone with clear psychological issues whining for no apparent reason and searching for some meaning in his life.

I will say that Baumbach’s dialogue didn’t set me off the way it did John.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t find it particularly clever.  Certainly nowhere near as smart as it thought it was.  But it never took me out of the moment the way that other movies of this ilk occasionally can, with stilted or awkward dialogue.

The acting nominations are baffling.  I like Stiller, especially in smaller doses as part of an ensemble (e.g. Keeping the Faith or Mystery Men), but here, not that anyone could have salvaged the character, he’s just kinda vaguely annoying.  I’m glad that the Independent Spirits acknowledge smaller, more subtle performances, I’m just not certain I would have made that stand with this one.  Similarly, Gerwig’s nomination feels off, especially given her company.  I love that she’s developing a reputation as princess of the indies, just because it seems like such an odd role.  While I don’t think placing her in the lead category is an egregious misstep, I personally would have made her eligible for supporting.  (I sometimes wonder if supporting should be broken into two categories.)  But she did show her boobies, perhaps that registered with the committee.

If I had to put anyone up for an award, it’d probably be Rhys Ifans, who has shown surprising versatility (contrast his role in Notting Hill with that in Pirate Radio or this one with his character from The Replacements).  Things got kinda weird and forced when Brie Larson and Juno Temple showed up, but also sexy as well, so….meh?

Frankly, I find it disheartening to see Greenberg showered with nominations.  There are so many tiny movies with virtually no shot of getting a halfway blip of recognition outside this awards show, not to mention so many more deserving performances and films, it is a shame to see the Independent Spirits fall afoul of the same star-worshiping that besets so many other awards.

I don’t think any filmmaker has such a disastrous record with me than Noah Baumbach. It’s not bad enough that I hate nearly every moment of his awful films, but that each seems like they should appeal to me. “Oh, this looks interesting,” I say. “Maybe Baumbach has made something good this time.”

He has not.

I hated the Baumbach-written and -directed Margot at the Wedding. He wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox and even though I’ve directed most of the blame for that huge letdown of a film toward Wes Anderson, all the dialogue problems I had in Fox are apparent in other Baumbach films more than Anderson’s. And their earlier collaboration, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, was also pretty awful. I hated his latest directorial and writing effort, Greenberg.

I hate him so much. It it- the- fl- flames. Flames, on the side of my face

Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, an aimless 40ish man fresh from from a stay in a mental institute. He heads to L.A. to house sit for his successful brother. While there he looks up his old friends, who have matured and moved on with their lives while he has not. Though, because it’s a Baumbach film, none of these friends are happy. Greenberg also strikes up a relationship with his brother’s nanny, Florence, played by Greta Gerwig. She’s much younger but also directionless. There’s no reason for them to be together, yet they each awkwardly pursue each other while he does something incredibly mean to her every fifteen minutes or so.

Save for one mini-revelation at the end, the plot goes nowhere and nobody changes. Including me, as I turned it off neither enlightened nor entertained.

As I’ve said time and again, a film choosing to be character rather than plot driven is fine with me. A quiet character study has a solid chance of charming me. It does help when the characters aren’t big self-made losers that are incredibly painful to watch, however. Characters need more characteristics than “whiny,” “mopey,” and “miserable.”

And the dialogue! Oh goodness, the dialogue. Sometimes I feel like Baumbach starts with a bunch of pithy observations then writes a plot around them. “Laughing already demonstrates appreciation,” Greenberg says when seeing a man clapping while laughing. “The applause just seems superfluous.” Fine, that’s a mildly amusing observation. But it’s also apropros of nothing in the scene and immediately forgotten. It reminds me of what I said about Margot at the Wedding, that the characters talk at each other instead of to each other. Greenberg doesn’t seem to have conversations. He says something and someone responds, perhaps on topic and perhaps not, then he says something unrelated. None of these discussions go anywhere, or at least not anywhere interesting.

I’m concerned that with Baumbach’s pedigree and the film’s mild financial success that the studio might make a play for an Original Screenplay nod. I think that’s a long shot, thankfully, but I fully expect it to clean up at the Independent Spirit Awards this year. I dig serious Ben Stiller so it’s too bad everything he does here is so cringeworthy. Gerwig is a rising star – actually already something of a star in the mublecore movement – but she really didn’t do anything for me here. This, naturally, would make her an Independent Spirit front-runner.

Your charms don't work on me!

Actually, maybe it would be nice for Greenberg to rack up some Indie nominations so the rest of the gang will watch it. Sometimes I’m sadistic like that. I look forward to us hating on this film for years to come.

February 2020
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