Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mumble that again?

Ben Stiller takes a time-out in Greenberg.

Noah Baumbach's Greenberg may be an awful movie, but at least it's awful in an interesting way: watching it is like watching its genre, "mumblecore," self-destruct before your eyes.

Of course you could argue that Baumbach's never been an avatar of true mumblecore, that millennial mode christened by Andrew Bujalski's sound engineer, in which aimless twentysomethings mutter and fidget over their delayed maturation for roughly 90 minutes before taking a baby step in something like the right life direction. There's not much to the mode, as you might guess from that summary, largely because it was generated by filmmakers with little money or means. Thus mumblecore is usually limited to little conversations in grad-student digs with bean bag chairs, spiced with the occasional hesitant hook-up; the biggest "crowd" scenes occur in basement clubs, in which lead characters make wan attempts at rock vocals before supportive gaggles of their friends (there's just such a scene, that reads like a gentle nod to a kabuki-like convention, in Greenberg).

Within these confines, the genre still often manages to charm in its precise character observations and accurate sense of social detail. But what it can't do is go deep, almost by definition - and this often leads mumblecore to drift through its own benign, immature haze when it comes to human nature. The gentle souls of mumblecore have their flaws and failings, of course, but these usually orbit around forgivable fears and insecurities, or at most, self-centeredness; the classic mumblecore villain is the guy who just wants to bag the lead babe without really digging her (eek!). Indeed, the title of Bujalski's second feature, Mutual Admiration, pretty much sums up the genre.

Noah Baumbach, however, has always scratched at the mild self-adulation at the core of the form; he tries to drag it toward the slightly-edgier School of Quirk founded by best bud Wes Anderson. Baumbach movies like Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale featured people who weren't all that easy to admire - they weren't merely self-absorbed, they were obvious narcissists obsessed with their own status, and weren't above lying or cheating or plagiarizing to get their own way. They actually did bad things sometimes. What kept Baumbach's films within shouting distance of mumblecore, however, was their odd sense of forgiving distance - and the sense that almost everyone in them gave as good as they got.

But the director has never brought anyone to the screen quite like the eponymous Greenberg (Ben Stiller, above), an aging (of course) narcissist knocking around the L.A. home of his equally-dyspeptic, but far more successful, brother. As was the case with the father in The Squid and the Whale, we sense that Greenberg's prickly personality serves as protection for an ego that can't really face up to reality, but this time around, there's something else kicking and screaming in the narcissistic mix, too - something colder, and nearly malicious. Of course, unlike Dad in Squid, or the entitled whiners of K&S, Greenberg is pretty obviously a failure. He led a band years ago, but it broke up (largely over his own orneriness), and since then he has suffered a vague "breakdown" after a stint in New York as a carpenter. He no longer drives, and can't even swim - two gaps that serve as both obvious metaphors and running punchlines amid the pools and freeways of L.A.

So unlike the usual denizens of mumblecore, Greenberg isn't really hanging back from adult choices; instead, he's recovering from adult failures - failures that he himself seems to have caused. Thus the aimlessness that is Baumbach's specialty has a far different cast than it had in his earlier films. Greenberg isn't just procastinating; he's marinating in his own bad juices. And left to his own devices, without real prospects or plans, he nurses his grudges almost maniacally (another running "joke" is that he's constantly penning letters of complaint).

Of course all this only makes Greenberg not a very nice person. But in mumblecore terms, he reads as something close to a serial killer, as one critic opined - because Baumbach sticks closely to genre conventions when it comes to his second lead, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who floats through the movie in a standard-issue mumblecore fog of abstracted indeterminacy. Florence, who's gentle and kind and pretty, and smarter and more competent than she herself realizes, takes care of the house which Greenberg is haunting, and soon she's taking care of Greenberg, too. He responds by taking advantage of her sexually, and in every other way as well.

What follows, we surmise, is supposed to strike us as a kind of mumblecore screwball comedy, in which Greenberg slowly awakens to his own fallen nature and earns his way into Florence's good graces. She, meanwhile, holds true to a faith that Greenberg is just "different" in some worthwhile way that involves integrity and art, or something like that. Only the movie actually plays more like a horror movie in which a child is sent to play next to a powerful piece of machinery; think Funny Ha Ha meets Saw, in which tiny chances and whimsical coincidences draw a naïf into the orbit of a maniac.

Thus we cringe at the closing moments of the picture - we can only imagine what kind of grief lies ahead for poor Florence. True, Greenberg has had something of an epiphany - after partying somewhat pathetically with a mob of drunken, self-contented millennials (who listen to Korn, for chrissakes), he has realized he is both no longer young, and simply can't be "young" as it's now understood. But beyond that, little about him seems to have changed. He has made the tiny move toward maturity required of mumblecore heroes and heroines at their respective fade-outs; only this time around, his issues totally eclipse said gesture (so much so that I wondered if Baumbach might be indulging in a particularly bitter strain of parody).

To be fair, Greenberg is studded with tiny, telling moments; its L.A. is smoggy yet bleached-out, and populated by (as Greenberg notes) men who dress like teenagers and kids who dress as superheroes. But beyond the accuracy of his micro-critiques of la-la land, little is revealed about Greenberg himself to counteract our impression that he's a needy, vindictive jerk. We never get to hear any of his music, for instance, and in his final confrontation with that posse of imperturbably mediocre millennials, Baumbach can't quite tease out what Greenberg has that they don't. But then again, to do so would require a sense of history, palpable artistic ambitions, and something like a dramatic arc - all of which are hard to sustain when you're mumbling.