Greenberg: a film in need of a hero

Does a good film need to be entertaining? Depends on what you mean by ‘entertaining’, I suppose, but I do think that the entertainment factor is a more central and inescapable part of cinema than is the case for most other forms of art. The entertainment a film offers is more inextricably interwoven in the fabric of a movie’s value than the sheer pleasure a piece of music affords (more easily distillable) or one’s enjoyment of a novel, say (in some cases: frankly irrelevant to its artistic merit, pace Jonathan Franzen).

So it’s with that distinction in mind that I find myself saying that the latest film by Noah Baumbach, Greenberg, falls down because there’s too little to entertain. Ben Stiller plays the titular Greenberg, Roger, who is, in no particular order: spoilt, self-obsessed, recovering from a nervous breakdown, selfish, mean-spirited, growing old, paying the price for a much earlier mistake, and chronically under-achieving. We follow him house-sitting for his older brother, and blowing hot and cold with a woman who is, as well as being the older brother’s family housekeeper, in almost every way much nicer than Stiller’s character is.

A couple of reviews (here and here, for instance) made comparisons with Woody Allen in his prime, but that’s too rich: something as good as Annie Hall has wit, pacing and levity which a film like Greenberg could’ve really done with. It is certainly artfully crafted: the acting, particularly Greta Gerwig as the housekeeper, is so pitch perfect that you really don’t see the joins, and Rhys Ifans (as Greenberg’s long-suffering best buddy) delivers such an understated, effective performance that you find yourself wondering if it’s the man you thought you knew.

But here’s the rub: as central characters go, Greenberg has the flaws to make him human, but too few actual redeeming features to make you care. He is, as far as one can tell, wealthy and privileged, and as a result his neuroses (refusing to drive despite the fact he can, writing angry man letters to major corporations) seem nothing but petty and stampy-feety. His behaviour, however coherent in being consistently frustrating, also has the misfortune of being consistently and pretty much irredeemably unpleasant, however believably done, and at the end of the day a film needs a hero.

As a footnote: Greenberg also features the most excruciatingly cringeworthy sex scene of any film I’ve seen since Watchmen, but for reasons diametrically opposed to those that made Silk Spectre and Night Owl’s Leonard Cohen-soundtracked lovemaking so awful to witness. Just imagine what it would’ve been like if The Office (the original) had featured a sex scene. And then fix yourself a stiff drink.

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