“Greenberg” (2010): misogynistic, unbearable.
13 January 2011
Normally I focus on movies as if I’m having sex with them: I open up all my perceptive faculties and focus intently. But during Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg I had to sit with my laptop and send a few angry emails. And in retrospect I am even angrier that this is on anyone’s Top Ten list (and it is); it’s an exercise in female self-degradation akin to watching Chasing Amy (1997) or In the Company of Men (also 1997). I’m especially angry because Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) is such a good film, and because Greta Gerwig (below) is so talented in contrast to Ben Stiller, whose main contribution is that he allows himself to be neither as attractive nor as slap-your-knee funny as in all his other vehicles.
When the movie just focuses on Gerwig’s face, it sings. In a number of shots we simply watch her character, Florence, in a series of un-selfconscious moments — driving, for example, and looking expectedly at other drivers as she waits for them to let her merge — scenes she handles with such utter charm that we get to know her even without dialogue. In fact, she spends much of her time driving, as she works as a personal assistant for the wealthy Greenberg family. But then the narrative takes her down into the pit of hell via a semi-relationship with the vile, much older Roger Greenberg (Stiller), her employer’s brother visiting from New York, who wants her but doesn’t want her. She doesn’t even want him, yet she makes herself available to him time and time again in scenes that truly rank among the most unpleasant sex scenes of the year. I find this film all the more disturbing because it was co-written by Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actor I’ve always loved and followed, and who has a very small role here.
Please don’t tell me I just didn’t get it — that Baumbach was trying to make me angry, that he’s trying to make us ask questions about why young, insecure women might subject themselves to relationships with fucked-up, middle-aged assholes. No, this film wants us to care about Roger’s rehabilitation by the end of the movie, and to see Florence merely as one part of that process. Roger may be a complicated and unlikeable character, but the minute he shows up he supplants Florence as protagonist and anti-hero. This is nothing like Nicole Holofcener’s brilliant and much-misunderstood Friends With Money (2006), which begged questions about women who feel the need to be nice. No, this is just a mean-spirited opportunity to trace a man’s personal crisis. Get it off your Top Ten lists and nominations rosters. I can’t believe Winter’s Bone has to compete with this.