Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The director non-grata list: new member Noah Baumbach

If I seem to be surly when writing this post, you would be correct. There are a number of reasons, but one of them is movie-related.

I had the misfortune of seeing Greenberg this past weekend. Usually, I'm proud to be of a (sir) critical bent, but there is at least one film every year for which critics go bananas, and then I end up slipping on their peels. This year, it's the well-reviewed Greenberg.

I shouldn't have been surprised at this. In fact, I wasn't really surprised at all. I had seen a previous film by writer-director Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale - which I hated. That movie was filled with pretentious, condescending, holier-than-thou twits whose company I could not wait to leave. That's the title character of Greenberg (Ben Stiller) in a nutshell.

Most critics disagree with me. They loved The Squid and the Whale, and they loved Greenberg as well. And in a small sense, I could see why - these are the sort of self-consciously hip films filled with intense emotions that pass for emotional authenticity in a landscape dominated by Bigger, Dumber movies. Baumbach's dramatic and visual styles also echo American filmmaking of the 70s, for which so many critics carry a torch.

Hey, I wish American movies had more depth of feeling  too - just as long as the feeling isn't one of arrogant self-righteousness, like most of Baumbach's characters. Baumbach knows this - he makes a joke out of it by having Greenberg  be a serial complaint writer. He grouses to everyone from Starbucks to a pet cab conpany for daring not to make everything JUST as it should be for him.

Problem is, Greenberg spends the entire movie moaning and groaning about this, that and the other with precious little indication he's ever going to change. Spending a couple hours with this schmuck is akin to being Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade and having to listen to M. Emmet Walsh's BS all day long. I can understand why a number of Greenberg screenings have seen walk-outs.

And yet, I wasn't totally down on Greenberg, and the reason for that is Greta Gerwig. She's a very charming and skilled  actress who plays a much younger woman that Greenberg fancies, but - surprise, surprise - Greenberg can't commit. Gerwig conveyed  empathy. vulnerability, winsomeness - basically the antithesis of everything Greenberg conveys. Had the movie been more about her, I might have actually liked it. Because of her, I consider this movie marginally more tolerable than The Squid and the Whale.

That may sound like faint praise in this context, but still,  Grenberg sealed this deal:  If a film is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, I'm not buying a ticket. He joins Stephen Daldry in the Directors Whose Movies I Will No Longer See Club. After that suffocating overdose of self-importance called The Reader sucked the life out of the theater, I vowed never again for any of Daldry's movies. The double whammy of that film and of The Decades ...er, I mean The Hours made him dead to me. My best friend Scott Copeland offered the best slam on The Reader by writing that "it managed to make copious amounts of Kate Winslet's nudity boring."

I remember at the end of The Reader there was a dedication to producers/filmmakers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella - and I remember adding in my head " ... either of whom would have made a much better film than the one I just watched."

Neither Buambach nor Daldry has made a film as wretched as Bad Boys II, but loathe as I am to give any credence to my favorite whipping boy, Monsieur Bay, at least his frenzied incompetence keeps me alert and awake!

Not that I'm going to go see Transformers 3 now that I don't have to do so!


Accattone said...

You are funny! And I have to say I concur with every word. I'm done with Mr. Baumbach as well. But Greta is the 21st century's Cary Grant.

Scott Copeland said...

My list:
1. Michael Bay
2. Uwe Boll
3. Michael Bay
4. Those idiots who made Date Movie, Epic Movie, Stupid Movie, etc.
5. Michael Bay

Zack said...

Actually, Baumbach's previous film was Margot at the Wedding, which I projected at the Little Art. I never saw the movie properly, because just overhearing portions of it was pretty unpleasant. You and I are definitely on the same page with Baumbach, and I made the same pronouncement after seeing Greenberg: Count me out for any of his future films. We're also agreed about Greta Gerwig; she was the best part of this movie. I could see an argument being made for the movie actually being about her (it begins from her POV, the most the movie has to say is about how Greenberg comes into her life and changes it -- her somehow emerging a little better for it), but she's not in the movie enough for it to stick.

Sir Critic said...

Actually, I knew Buambach's last film was "Margot" - but given my experience with "Squid" I skipped it. I kinda wish I had done the same for "Greenberg," but at the very least, it allowed me to discover Gerwig.