Noah Baumbach, director and co-writer of Greenberg, employs an anti-naturalist, hyper-literate approach to filmmaking. His insightful, funny movies are all-too-knowing, prickly run-on sentences. Whether the dialogue and situations are believable in Baumbach's films has never been the point: Baumbach's world has always been such a heightened, talkative version of reality that the conversation was the point in and of itself, even when that conversation was about wasting time, and even then the conversation turned to the topic of words themselves. Which is a bigger waste of time, doing the crossword or watching television? Hint: one involves thinking of words, sometimes roots of words, often in Latin.
From the stiff and deliberate camera setups that serviced the delivery of smartass one-liners in Kicking and Screaming through to the fluid multi-camera setup at an alfresco lunch in Margot at the Wedding that made room for a conversational free-for-all, Baumbach has hit the mark without seeming to really try. It's this feeling that nothing is assembled well enough to keep from falling apart at any second that gives his films a special tension. With Greenberg, it finally does crumble. Forget the fact that he's been making such smart, funny films for 15 years: Greenberg is a bummer because for the first few scenes of the film, Baumbach seems to be on the verge of making his best film yet, and then it turns into a deeply disappointing flameout.
In a simple and effective opening-credits sequence that recalls The Graduate, we watch Florence in profile in one long take, driving through Los Angeles. "Are you going to let me in?" she asks drivers in the next lane. The shot and its cinematic reference, as well as the way Greta Gerwig pulls off the aggressive double meaning of that line of dialogue, are accurate indicators of what makes Baumbach's style work. But Gerwig's performance soon disintegrates, and Baumbach's compositions and script get lazy.
In that opening sequence, Florence is running errands for the man she works for, Phillip Greenberg (Chris Messina), before he and his family leave (without her) for a six-week vacation. After they leave, she will remain on call for Phillip's brother Roger (Ben Stiller), visiting from New York. Roger is without a driver's license, which makes Florence his prime go-to for transportation and errands. Soon enough, he's got a tentative courtship with Florence in the works; and really, who wouldn't go for a girl who brings you ice cream sandwiches and whiskey?
Florence is kind, unassuming, honest and pretty, but Roger is the kind of self-hating prick who finds flaws with anyone who likes him. (That doesn't make it any less offensive when Baumbach's script has Roger point out the fact that Florence isn't a size zero; hopefully, future directors will capitalize on Gerwig's presence instead of measuring her waistline.) Baumbach scrutinizes Roger with his camera in recurring scenes of him alone at his brother's house. He pushes Roger to the edges of spacious frames; the space is there for the taking, but Roger cowers in the margins. The simple cinematic language of the film is a perfect complement for the way Baumbach uses dialogue. His scripts—when they work—are direct and clear, allowing characters to say what they mean in a way that a more realistic approach, wherein characters might not even know what they mean, much less be able to say it, would not.
But in Greenberg, as characters have meltdowns and obligatory confrontations, the camera's position becomes a secondary concern. This might work if Roger and Florence kept the camera on the run, but they're a pretty sedentary pair, so the haphazard tableaus linger for too long. The lazy compositions call attention to themselves, and they offer nothing to interpret once they've gotten your attention. And so we are left with little else to chew on but the relationship on screen—which grows increasingly flimsy—and the bland question of why Florence would put up with Roger as he criticizes her and asks invasive questions about her sex life.
It shouldn't matter whether their romance is believable: When you enter a movie about a romance, it's your responsibility as a viewer to buy it. But it's hard not to let it nag as Florence's character gets more vulnerable and Gerwig's performance turns in on itself, going from exceptional and unique to weak and familiar. To be fair, Gerwig's loose style probably needs strong direction to make it work, and Baumbach seems to have gone hands-off after the first act. It's an approach that doesn't suit him or her, and it ruins the movie.
The subtitle of a recent Slate article asked, "Why do we put up with the narcissists, misanthropes and passive-aggressives who populate Noah Baumbach's films?" More precisely, one could ask, "Why does Florence put up with someone who treats her like shit?" Of course, if there were more artistic dynamism or filmmaking on display, we wouldn't be forced to engage in such boring, familiar inquiries in the first place.