You know those fleeting, inelegant moments and transitory, almost Seinfeldian scenarios in our lives that, unlike on Seinfeld, we never really talk about, because they betray how clueless and insecure we all are? You know how we'll go to parties basically to see one person and find we're inept at opening up and socializing with anyone else? You know those pointless, roundabout stories we'll tell about something that happened that we thought was interesting or funny but we don't realize how boring or monotonous they are till we're halfway through them? What about the receiving end of that situation? Why are we so worried about hurting these painful storytellers' feelings when they're making us so uncomfortable having to feign interest or amusement for indefinite durations? You know those sexual experiences we never talk about even to our best friends because they were so painfully awkward and nakedly ungraceful? You know how when we're on drugs we only indulge occasionally and we find ourselves wording things in creative ways, feeling overconfident and impulsive while everyone else is viewing us as rather reckless? Roger and Florence know, all too painfully, awkwardly, uncomfortably, recklessly well.
Some of us handle these situations much better than others. Some of us save face, some of us don't care that much, some of us read other people well enough to know it's all just part of life. Forty-year-old carpenter Roger Greenberg and his brother's college-age assistant Florence are stranded by an utter deficiency of any of these possible salvages. Inevitably finding themselves sharing these horrible moments whenever they're together, they are in turn repulsed by one another. They can't stop reeling over what happened last night, the other night, a week ago. And while Florence is too timidly self-effacing and in need of being with someone to bring herself to write off Roger, Roger's whole perspective on everything is disfigured by his narcissistic compulsion toward suffering, his hermit-like disdain for any and every inconvenience, and righteous indignation that he can't allow to exist alongside ever being at fault. It's Seinfeld in the bathroom with a razor blade in the tendon.
When you watch the trailer, you're watching a nervously smoking exec hoping to at least break even by streamlining all the overtly laugh-inducing moments. With the possible exception of less than a handful, they indeed are all in the preview. The dry carping lines by Stiller, the Starbucks letter, at the party telling off the Gen-Y stoners, hitting the SUV and bailing when it actually stops. Greenberg is a comedy, but in such an internal and carefully cringe-worthy way that most scenes are seemingly shapeless renderings of a combination of characters situated in a combination of day-to-day situations and the readily apparent punchline moments are indeed that few and that far between. But that is its intent, and it succeeds with witty effect: An impossible jerk and a bashful, marginally popular girl idiosyncratically push each other's most debilitatingly precarious buttons but aren't able to go their separate ways because they're too thin-skinned to be alone. It is the ultimate anti-romantic comedy. No Golden Globe moments here.
Ben Stiller gives the performance I believe all truly good comic actors capable of, one of fierce angst and biting personal honesty. We've seen Sandler unravel an entirely different dimension of himself in Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, Robin Williams in World's Greatest Dad and Insomnia, Pryor in Blue Collar, and so on. Roger Greenberg is his tour de force as a well-rounded, perceptive and talented actor who's not afraid of his audience going as far as to dislike his character, which would be entirely understandable for many viewers to feel, because he deeply understands Greenberg and doesn't judge him. The gratifying discovery we make here is that of Greta Gerwig. Yes, she is very sexy, but exactly the way Greenberg describes, "She's, I don't know, bigger. I find it sexy." She's pure salt of the earth, a real person unfettered by make-up or fashion. I know many girls who talk, dress and act just like her Florence, who she makes come alive on just the right naturalistic levels.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach made two previous films very strongly akin to this. They were the concise and beautiful The Squid and the Whale and the soul-crushingly relatable and mercilessly matter-of-fact Margot at the Wedding. All three of these films have difficult and self-unaware individuals at their centers, they each share a bone-dry and woefully cynical sense of humor and they each reveal Baumbach's inimitable talent at showing us characters and situations so universal and everyday as to level-headedly gaze at the most abstract innards of acknowledgeable moments of personal and social frustration. His actors always feel extemporaneous, in the moment, unscripted. Their characters belong to an ever-pervading yet little-characterized contemporary facet of liberalized information-age American society. At arm's length he shares the quirky, idiosyncratic likes of Wes Anderson, except there is not one shred of hopeful sweetness or heart-warming serendipity. Those are things we love, and we embrace them whenever we experience them, but at the expense of never taking the time to face the realities of the banal, the bilious stuff of everyday life. That's where Baumbach comes in.
Comedy / Drama
Comedy / Drama
We like Florence: she's considerate, sweet, pretty, and terrific with kids and dogs. She's twenty-five, personal assistant to an L.A. family that's off on vacation. Her boss's brother comes in from New York City, fresh from a stay at an asylum, to take care of the house. He's Roger, a forty-year-old carpenter, gone from L.A. for fifteen years. He arrives, doesn't drive, and needs Florence's help, especially with the family's dog. He's also connecting with former band-mates - two men and one woman with whom he has a history. He over-analyzes, has a short fuse, and doesn't laugh at himself easily. As he navigates past and present, he's his own saboteur. And what of Florence? is Roger one more responsibility for her or something else?
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January 26, 2012 at 10:50 pm