The six films of Noah Baumbach describe sad and gentle slide from probing disappointment (Kicking and Screaming) to pervasive contempt (Margot at the Wedding). Greenberg, his latest film, sits somewhere in between.
In fact the movie is about inbetweens. About not being one thing, or its opposite. About not loving and not hating, not wanting and not not wanting. “I’m not doing anything,” Greenberg declares, “But I’ve decided not to do anything.” Is there a difference? Yes. No. We’re meant to laugh, weakly. This is a neurotic comedy if Antonioni had made it.
Greenberg is a cry for help without any crying. I wish I could say it’s the story of two generations – grunge versus mumblecore – but that would suggest Baumbach was aiming for something a little more conceptually ambitious. And ambition is contrary to the whole ethic of the film. Greenberg is just about a guy; guy so unlikable, it seems he actually sets out to cause difficulty, thwart coherence, and stymie momentum, just as Baumbach’s movie – named for its pro/antagonist – pursues ideas only to drop them, shirks from illumination, and stifles our satisfaction wherever and however possible. In other words, it’s good.
But even if you nail it, setting out to make blah can only net you the finest blah in town. That explains the sense of cold dissatisfaction upon leaving the theater, of feeling as though you haven’t sat through anything. But that’s reality, isn’t it? Nothing? Blah? Our man Baumbach seems to think so. Futility is the river of the world.
I began to wonder on my way out about the kinds of futility. Some of the greatest films have come out this all-powerful twentieth century curse, but only recently have they been designed to be unappealing. (Trying to seem unrefined, they actually appear more calculating than an honest-to-God Hollywood blockbuster.) But paralysis didn’t always used to be that way. Think back: Chayefsky was mad as hell. Ingmar Bergman was smart as hell. Benjamin Braddock, the patron saint of paralysis, had Elaine. And Beckett? There’s a lot to be gained from Godot, Greenberg’s wiser grandparent. The difference is, those clowns fought the nothing. Baumbach’s guy gave up the fight long ago. No, wait. Scratch that. He never began it.
Is that because the fight doesn’t exist anymore? Is that, I wondered on my way out into the street, what mumblecore is actually all about – apathy? Because if it is, I think that is worth fighting.
Compare Greenberg to Cassavetes’s Minnie & Moskowitz, a film that has so clearly inspired Baumbach’s, and you’ll see the fight up close, back in 1971, when Los Angeles wasn’t the capital of aimlessness (the first shot of Greenberg is of smog and crossed telephone wires), but a whacked-out town of lonely loonies turned loose to wreak havoc upon each other’s weirdnessess. Like Greenberg, they’ll never win, but unlike Greenberg, that’s why I love them.