Friday, April 02, 2010
Noah Baumbach is a filmmaker who repeats. I loved The Squid and the Whale and became obsessed with it a few months ago (as I tend to with certain films when I'm writing), and decided that it's basically a perfect movie, even the shots where you see 2000s cars in the '80s setting go into making it great, but that's another discussion. So anyway, I was very eagerly anticipating this new film from Baumbach even though it looked stylistically, and tonally, completely different than anything Baumbach has done, either in his first two 90s post-collegiate intellectual ennui films (Kicking & Screaming, Mr. Jealousy), his two harsh familial drama, rebound, mid-00s films (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) or his co-writing work with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox). From the trailer I was worried it seemed to contain none of the visual style Baumbach had started with The Squid and the Whale and refined with Margot at the Wedding, but even more than that I was worried by Baumbach's sudden fondness for my most hated "filmmaker," Joe Swanberg, who I will summarize for those unfamiliar as the Uwe Boll of no-budget cinema. Not only had Baumbach produced Swanberg's latest nopus (does that work?), he'd cast one of Swanberg's mainstays Greta Gerwig in a central role. I liked Gerwig in her small role in The House of the Devil, but her connection to Swanberg still soured me on her as a performer. From the trailer the film also seemed like it might be slipping into the Nancy Meyers territory of films about wealthy people with made up problems.
Having now actually seen the film (twice) and not just guessing based on advertising, I can say quite happily that none of those concerns come to pass. The film is different in many ways than Baumbach's previous films but it's also a logical evolution. Visually, it has a very striking resemblance to 1970s American cinema, like that of Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Sidney Lumet, and Peter Yates. Even more so than in Margot at the Wedding (where Baumbach first worked with Greenberg cinematographer Harris Savides), this film visually evokes a long passed period in mainstream American cinema. A period where even in the hokiest of studio genre pictures like Capricorn One, you'd find a competently shot film that has respect for the widescreen frame and knew how to use it to good effect. And unlike so many filmmakers working in a superficially similar milieu who evoke those names of the 1970s American auteurs, Baumbach's film evokes it in content, as well as form. From the frames, to the lighting, down to the way the film is processed, everything visual is rooted in an organic, utterly natural ideology. The same goes for the music from LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, which sounds reminiscent of solo Paul McCartney or the Leonard Cohen songs in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and the structure of the story, which is rooted in character and moments and diverting expectations. Baumbach is also able to resist the temptation so many filmmakers who chase that look and feeling fall into, to remove your characters story from the present and its technology and politics and pop culture. Baumbach embraces the time in which the film was made and doesn't shy away from referring to the world in a way that most people do every day.
The performances all around are so rich and full of nuance that it's hard to focus on one standout. Ben Stiller gives his best performance since Chas Tenenbaum as the title role, and makes such bold choices that I fear some audiences may be put off by it. Stiller has always been attracted to characters who don't pander to audience sympathies, even in his most outlandish comic roles, he almost never begs for the audience to like him, and in his best work he doesn't seem to care. Look back at Zoolander, an incredibly flawed film, but one with a central character who is so stupid, so ignorant, that any viewer with a 5th grade education has no choice but to feel superior to him. In most protagonists there are faults, how else are we to care for a person, but there are also redeeming character traits. They're kind, or their funny, even if they're pricks they find redemption. Stiller, it seems, is interested in pushing the audiences tolerance. In the films he's directed, his characters redemption comes at the last possible moment, and is almost immediately revoked. Tugg Speedman in Tropic Thunder is still a self involved, stupid prick at the end of the movie. Chas Tenenbaum is still disassociated from his family. Even as a public personality, Stiller has always given off the air that he doesn't really care what you think. It's not until this role that that tendency has been explored to such complex and engaging results. Stiller's Roger Greenberg is a misanthropic, self involved, delusional wreck. But we care about him because we can see immediately that he is so confused and lacks such basic skill for accurate introspection, that you know he can't even help himself. When he says horrible things, or shouts profanities, or is insensitive in social situations, you know it's because of this crippling problem. We also care about him because he's an exaggerated version of something that is within every thinking person, criticism, dissatisfaction, and a guard we put up to protect ourselves from pain. If we strike the first blow, it won't hurt as much as it would if we were struck first. For Greenberg, vulnerability is something that doesn't fit into his purview of life. Greenberg is so critical of people who lack self awareness, but of course he in fact has no self awareness himself. He's a walking contradiction of a human being, and it's the unraveling of his persona that partially makes the film's almost plotless nature so fascinating. For Baumbch, this is a character who has bounced around his films from the beginning in various forms, most fully in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. Greenberg's invention is a direct combination of Frank, Walt, and Bernard from The Squid and the Whale and Margot from his follow-up film. What Ben Stiller brings to it is incalculable. His performance is so dense and psychologically complex that I felt for the very first time I was seeing something honest from him. Beyond their blind-spots, Stiller's characters always seem to contain an element of distancing irony. But there are passages in Greenberg where you completely forgot you're watching one of the biggest movie stars in the world, because you're not. You're watching a fully formed person inhabiting a space with no regards for an audience, a story, or even a camera.
It is also Greenberg's interaction with Greta Gerwig's character Florence that makes the films aimless, searching narrative so compelling. While one may argue that Greenberg is almost a stock Baumbachian character, Florence is something he's never attempted before. Florence is at heart a good person. She doesn't connive or scheme, she's almost accommodating to a fault. She's a sweet young girl who's main goal it seems is to be happy. She works as a personal assistant to Greenberg's brother, but serves the role of a nanny to the family, and even in this work she finds joy hiking with the family dog, Mahler, interacting with the Greenberg children, picking up groceries for the family. On weekends she sings at open mic nights, not because she's trying to build a career, but because it makes her happy. She goes home with a guy she meets at a gallery party a friend invited her to, because, she says, it felt good. Florence the purest of Baumbach's characters, not saddled with the education, therapy talk, or neurosis of his protagonists in the past. So when we see this decent young women so taken with this misanthropic middle aged man, we're curious and intrigued and we're allowed to view their non-romance as an interaction between people, rather than a sporting event where the audience is forced to take sides, for or against. In life, it is more complicated in that, and so it is too in Baumbach's film. Gerwig's performance is so adept at taking a character who in less assured hands could end up a low-rent Manic Pixie Dream Girl and turn her into a real person. There's an unawareness of the camera in Gerwig that I can only assume comes from her extensive work in no-budget, improvised films wherein she was likely filmed up close for long periods of time. She's used to a camera being there in situations most actresses wouldn't allow. There's a scene in Swanberg's awful Hannah Takes the Stairs where Gerwig rubs the real residue of a towel off of her nipples. Though the scene has no place in the film, and serves no dramatic purpose, it illustrates Gerwig's ability to play every scene as real, to be open to showing the realities of mundanity. It's a quality she brings to every scene in the film, whether it's her driving for long stretches, or walking the dog, or hiking with a friend, she's not concerned with looking "good" so much as she is with being truthful. It's a style of performance you don't see in films often, and when you begin to realize how much of a character Gerwig has built, the performance becomes even more impressive, and it's even more apparent how central it is to Greenberg's success. That frankness is something Swanberg exploited to mostly prurient excess, but what Baumbach does is incorporate it into scenes that would otherwise be meaningless. Those opening shots of the film, with Florence driving around Los Angeles, hold our interest because it feels like we're watching someone living, and we're allowed to drop in and observe for a moment before the "story" starts. It's fascinating, it's unique, and it's damn fine film.