by HELEN GEIB
There are a lot of shots of people in cars in Greenberg. Director Noah Baumbach keeps the camera close to the characters in the car shots. Usually it’s an unseen passenger, shifting its gaze from person to person to follow the conversation. Sometimes it looks at them straight-on through the windshield or car door window, capturing the person and the distorted reflection of what they see.
People in cars is part of the familiar iconography of Los Angeles-set movies, an immediately understood metaphor for isolation and rootlessness. The metaphor fits Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) to a tee. Greenberg- nearly everyone calls him “Greenberg,” the presumed relic of a youthful affectation- is a disagreeable misanthrope, his isolation self-wrought. An LA native, he fled to New York City some fifteen or more years ago. He’s back ostensibly to house-sit for his brother while the brother and his family are on a long trip out of the country. It’s a timely change of scene; Greenberg was recently hospitalized for an unspecified mental breakdown.
He stopped driving when he moved to New York and refuses, or is unable to drive during his visit home. Not driving is a problem in LA, and Greenberg’s solution is to treat his longtime friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s personal assistant/nanny, as his personal taxi service. His selfishness is on full display; he expects them to be always available and never says thank you.
It’s also a useful plot device, as Greenberg’s dependence forces him into intimacy and conversation- being stuck in a car with someone makes him anxious and loosens his tongue. When he gets out of a car to continue a fraught conversation through the open window, the car door forming a protective barrier, the image nearly encapsulates his emotional guardedness.
Greenberg and most of the people he left behind are still nursing old grievances after all these years. Ivan is one of the few who isn’t. The dynamics of the friendship are highly revealing of Greenberg’s personality and character. The revelations begin with their reunion meeting, when Greenberg pours Ivan a very tall Scotch to match his own, blithely heedless of the fact his friend has been clean and sober since checking himself into rehab more than a decade before. In contrast, it’s typical of Ivan that what upsets him is not his friend’s constant complaints and slights, but the fact Greenberg didn’t call him when he had his breakdown. He might have been able to help, and it would have been an opportunity for them to become closer. Greenberg’s silent response makes it clear the thought never even crossed his mind. The friendship ends when Ivan finally can’t take it anymore. It’s a sad conclusion, but the dominant response is wonderment that it lasted so long.
The friendship “break up” story is paralleled by Greenberg and Florence’s hesitant movements in the direction of falling in love. Florence has appealing qualities and is easily a more sympathetic figure than Greenberg, but she carries her own psychological baggage. Her extreme self-effacement is pitiable and at times, extremely aggravating as well. Some of the time it seems like they could be good for each other, and some of the time it seems like they’re both too messed up to make it work. The film is reticent about their chances as a couple, but it does end on a hopeful note. Doing a favor for someone is a big step for Greenberg.
Other new releases this week: The Bounty Hunter, Chloe, The Greatest, Our Family Wedding