Rearview Mirror: “Greenberg”

Noah Baumbach’s prickliest film turns ten.
Film + TV
Rearview Mirror: “Greenberg”

Noah Baumbach’s prickliest film turns ten.

Words: Lizzie Logan

March 18, 2020

Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2020. I’m so happy you’re here.

When Greenberg premiered in March 2010, I was in high school with a lingering crush on a boy who looked not unlike Ben Stiller and whose last name was Goldberg, which isn’t relevant to this review but is sort of fun. I remember telling him at the time that I wasn’t excited about the movie; I didn’t like it when funny guys tried to do serious roles since watching Adam Sandler in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, released the previous summer. Goldberg disagreed, and said he loved it when comedians got serious. I took this as further proof that he was kind of a downer, and that it was my job to Manic Pixie Dream Girl him back to happiness.

I don’t know if Goldberg ever saw Greenberg. I watched it a couple years later, when I fancied myself the next Lena Dunham and made a project of watching all the indie movies I thought would turn me into her. Kicking and Screaming, Funny Ha Ha, Slacker, The Dish & the Spoon, Gaby on the Roof in July, Kissing Jessica Stein, Me and You and Everyone We Know, any and all things Duplass Brothers. And Greenberg. I didn’t watch them with any kind of critical eye. I’d tried to set my own tastes back to zero, wipe the slate clean, so I could rebuild based on what I now considered My Kind of Stuff. So I didn’t have a “take” on Greenberg, though I bought the soundtrack on iTunes.

Revisiting the movie for its ten year anniversary, my new take is that you don’t really need to. It’s not so much dated as it is redundant, made unnecessary by Baumbach’s and his collaborators’ later, better work. But since you’re here…

Let’s start on the credits. As Greta Gerwig drives around Los Angeles, a laundry list of starlets scroll by. We are promised a young Dave Franco, a young Juno Temple, a young Brie Larson, a young Zosia Mamet. Mark Duplass and Chris Messina will put in appearances, and for star power, Ben Stiller. And for intrigue, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Leigh and Baumbach wrote the story together; he did the screenplay and directed, she produced and has a small role. At the time, the two were married. And as you probably know, he left her not long after…for Greta Gerwig. I started wondering how much tension there was on set, how many secret trysts. It doesn’t matter, of course, it’s their private life—but the thing is, I’ve got a pretty good imagination, so my daydreams about a love triangle were kind of exciting. How unfortunate, then, that after the credits comes the first hour of the movie, which is totally boring.

Not bad boring. The dialogue is amusing, the scenes are well-observed. All the acting is strong and the interiors are pretty and there’s a dog named Mahler. But it’s a slice of life so life-like I felt like I’d already lived it. At one point, Greenberg (Stiller) asks his friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) if he’d like to watch Mannequin, just to see how well the movie holds up. As someone who was literally watching the movie just to see how it held up, yeah, I get it, let’s move along already. 

Greenberg’s whole raison d’être is to kill time. It’s his stated objective: to “do nothing.” He’s fresh out of a psychiatric ward following a nervous breakdown that’s never exactly explained, though we see that he’s anxious and depressed, and obsessive in that Larry David way where you fixate on small things, but you don’t count compulsively. Greenberg is staying at his brother’s house while his brother’s family is on vacation; Gerwig plays Florence, the family’s assistant (rich people!) who is on-call to help with the house, the dog, small errands, and of course, for Greenberg to fall in love with.

They talk about the music they are listening to, but mostly they talk about themselves, ad nauseam. Characters in this movie are always quoting their shrinks, and each other, and each other’s shrinks.

They fuck. They fight. They take Mahler to the vet, where Greenberg stares down Florence’s dress at her breasts. He’s fixated on his past, on a career mistake he made when he was Florence’s age. Florence doesn’t know what she wants to do in life, but she occasionally sings and she wears tights and sweaters, so we are supposed to find her irresistibly charming. Florence is…nice? She just got out of a long relationship so she’s also…sad? A little horny? She’s pretty. And she’s young, that’s the important part. She still gets carded! And she wears this giant green leather duster coat everywhere, even though it’s Los Angeles and sunny out—but hey, that’s quirky girls for you. She apologizes for everything about herself. He complains in conversation and in writing.  They even do that Woody Allen thing where the older guy teaches the younger girl about Good Culture; Greenberg burns Florence a mix CD of songs he likes, which is sweetly juvenile, and genuinely sweet, and also incredibly condescending.

They talk about the music they are listening to, but mostly they talk about themselves, ad nauseam. Characters in this movie are always quoting their shrinks, and each other, and each other’s shrinks. They psychoanalyze one another, accuse each other of projecting, tell each other how they think the other person is feeling. Greenberg comments on the quality of Florence’s storytelling; she calls him out for a half-assed apology. Dialogue about dialogue. It’s sharp, but not compelling.

Finally, in the third act, story and stakes appear. Florence confides in Greenberg that she’s pregnant (by her ex) and he accompanies her to the hospital for an abortion. He parties with teenagers, almost goes to Australia, keeps the dog alive, tries to be a little bit less of an asshole. There’s no real reason to root for them as a couple, but love is strange and I don’t like to root against people, so I settle for not caring if they stay together. By the end, I don’t care about any of it.

In the decade since Greenberg, Baumbach has continued to work with Gerwig: In the fantastic Frances Ha, she plays young and unmoored with far more life than she does here; in Mistress America, she’s funnier than ever. And Baumbach has continued to work with Stiller: While We’re Young is a much better investigation into the generation gap, and The Meyerowitz Stories…OK, I haven’t watched it, but it exists! And this past year, he gave us Marriage Story, a much richer slice of much more interesting lives. Ultimately, Greenberg and Ivan end up not watching Mannequin, and I’ll give you the same permission: just skip Greenberg. Make yourself a project of watching the better stuff instead. FL