By: Addison Wylie
Feeling empty? Lost? Feeling as if your life is headed somewhere terrible and if you don’t stop and do something, you could be headed towards your demise? You’re not the only one because Noah Baumbach has directed and written, along with wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, a film that encounters these said topics. The problem is instead of offering insight, a different point of view or offering advice, the film spends close to two hours being empty, and lost and as the film’s duration slugs along, a once promising film heads towards it’s disappointing demise.
Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, is having a hard time with his life. From family issues to remembering past mistakes with a band, the guy has a bunch of problems on his plate but, alas, he decides to take a break; to clear his mind. When Roger’s brother asks him to housesit while his family goes out of town, Roger snatches the opportunity. While Roger takes on new responsibilities such as taking care of the family dog, Roger soon meets his brother’s assistant, Florence, played by Greta Gerwig. As the two spend more time dealing with the house duties and hanging out, a possible romance starts to spark. An odd romance but a romance nonetheless. While in town, Greenberg catches up with longtime friends and former band mates Ivan, played by Rhys Ifans, and Eric, played by Mark Duplass, and tries to make amends but as much as the disconnected friends try to work out past blunders, the situation only grows more tense. As much as Greenberg tries to make ends meet and find purpose, the circumstances only grow more relentless.
I think Noah Baumbach shows potential that he could be a great director. His feature The Squid and The Whale is a painfully honest and darkly funny view on a dysfunctional family going through a divorce and as someone who witnessed a divorce unfold at a young age, I could connect with the performances and the story at hand. Here, there is hardly anything to connect to. Greenberg is supposed to be this loner that pushes everyone away and gives off a lot of negativity, and although Stiller is able to execute those emotions flawlessly, the character ends up being overbearing and annoying due to poor writing and character development. The main character in a movie can be a jerk but without any good intentions, an audience is going to have a hard time rooting to see this main character succeed. It’s as if Baumbach is trying to create a masterful anti-hero but he forgets how to fully finish developing and directing the “hero” portion. As a result, we get one of the most irritating film personalities ever. Greenberg spends the entire movie complaining, being uncomfortably awkward, and overall being a miserable sad-sack. Every other character in the film whenever their around Greenberg feels uncomfortable themselves and, although the first few times are a tad funny, it just becomes unbearable and grows more tedious throughout.
In addition to the character flaws, the story itself doesn’t carry itself well. Usually in film, characters are forced with a conflict to which they then face a rising action which leads to a climax. This film is devoid of any of this. Scenes where characters mumble and complain go on forever and offer no arc or any impact to the story. It’s clear here that Baumbach is trying not to follow a traditional story structure. I can understand some filmmakers want to break outside the box and tell a story an alternate way. For example, filmmaker Harmony Korine has proven himself with films like Kids, Gummo, and Julien Donkey-Boy that he is a master of breaking out of the norm, knowing how to write in a non-traditional way, and having an excellent execution in the end. To some it may be a giant mess but Korine knows his vision well and knows exactly how each scene will impact the story. Noah Baumbach isn’t ready to break outside that box just yet; especially with the script he has here. Perhaps if the script was written with a little more confidence as well as letting the audience inside on the joke, as well as featuring characters who were interesting, as well as a stronger story backbone, this finished product would be far more appealing and certainly much better.
As much as the writing and the direction is a mass disappointment, the film does offer some solid performances given the material the actors were handed. Gerwig does a great job portraying a character who is also lost and finds a connection in Greenberg. When she lights up when she realizes that she has something in common with Greenberg, she ignites and compells the audience and we feel overjoyed for her. When Greenberg berates her, we want to yell at the screen and tell her to find someone else. Gerwig’s performance proves that she’s an actress to look out for in the future. Also, Ifans and Duplass are very funny and very charismatic as they deal with Greenberg’s off-beat look on life. Ifans especially does a great job here because he is able to depict exceptionally how much he is holding back frustration towards Greenberg; it’s a really subtle, neat performance. However, the main seller who steals the show is score composer James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem. Murphy treats the score as a tool to provide more character development towards Stiller’s character. The score successfully simulates just how much frustration Greenberg is holding inside of him. In a scene where Greenberg is standing in a backyard at a childrens birthday party while parents talk amongst themselves and the camera slowly zooms in towards him, the score gets louder and more drawn out. The score adds a whole other level to the film and is really the only excellent thing that stuck out the entire time. If only the rest of the film had Murphy’s energy.
I haven’t given up hope for Baumbach and I certainly hope he isn’t a one hit wonder. I think when Baumbach has a story that he is passionate about that features characters that he and his audience can connect to as well as sharp dialogue that is both funny and truthful, Baumbach can write and direct masterfully. However, when the passion isn’t there, the film becomes a lethargic, disappointing mess with little redeeming value to it.