I sat with this DVD for a long time. Well, I didn’t sit with it exactly; Ms. Hipster gently disregarded my bi-weekly pleas to throw the thing in the ol’ player. “I’m too tired,” she often said. “I think that’s one of those talky-talky films and I’m feeling like something I can online grocery shop to,” is another common complaint. One night I finally broke her. I called her out on her anti-Semitism and clear disdain for movies about the Chosen People until she begged for mercy to the end of her Christian wits. Ok, it was more like, “Eh, if you want to finally watch your movie, go ahead.”
It turns out I totally called in that chip on the wrong horse. It’s not that I disliked the flick at all; it’s just that I somehow expected something different, something more. More what I don’t quite know, but perhaps I wanted less of the depressing Noah Baumbach and more of the off-kilter comedy I expected. I mean it is Ben Stiller starring in this thing, so there will inevitably be an overall air of comedy, but being a funny drunk, crazy loser is a tall order even for Stiller. Thinking back, there are elements of Baumbach-ian weirdness here, but it’s actually a more straightforward story than we’re used to from this guy. There are scenes that could have fit in an Adam Sandler movie (if that movie were Punch Drunk Love) or even like The Fisher King. Okay, totally not The Fisher King.
And then there are the other scenes. The scenes that on the surface seemed silly or benign or at times exhausting in their lack of cohesiveness, but are actually rife with meaning and/or character building text. I mean the whole plot basically entails Greenberg (Stiller) coming to housesit for his brother, building the guy a doghouse and getting into adventures with his brother’s assistant. And by adventures I mean an on again, off again tumultuous romance that involves some sex and then some not sex and then general weirdness. Between having sex with the assistant he writes complaint letters to every service organization he encounters and occasionally does some carpentry work on his brother’s dog’s house. This is pretty much how the film proceeds.
But maybe I should back up. Greenberg comes to his brother’s house after having a mental breakdown in NYC and being institutionalized. He’s an ex-musician who has apparently become a carpenter, but is currently “doing nothing.” Nothing, that is, except watching his brother’s house in LA, building him that aforementioned domicile for his pooch and drinking other people’s booze. He is clearly a man looking for direction, looking for meaning and trying to figure out what exactly it is he cares about. Of course he’s the only one who doesn’t seem to realize he’s on this journey. A guy who is so self-absorbed, so outwardly selfish and disinterested in anything else but his dissatisfaction and need to literally check out to focus on himself. As he travels from person to person in his life, they reveal to him his good attributes and his bad attributes and love him in spite and despite them. Though he is so socially inept and awkward and focused on all the wrong things he can’t even see that the thing he is searching for is being revealed before his eyes. His [undiagnosed] Aspergers kicks into high gear whenever challenged or getting too close to the truth, making him defensive and insecure and cruel to those who love him most.
At the heart of his relationships are those with his best friend from his band days and his brother’s assistant. The friendship with his bandmate shows us the history and puts context around him as a whole human being–where he used to be and where he is now. The assistant represents where he’s going to go and how he’s going to get there. While he stumbles and doesn’t realize his potential, his friends struggle hold up that mirror and show him his true self. And, in a subtle and wonderfully artistic way, the director wraps up all this mishigas with a single line from the assistant that tells you everything is going to be okay and that Greenberg will finally have that epiphany he didn’t even know he needed. There are few good endings in movies these days, but this one is so simple and perfect it amazes me that more folks can’t write this shite without making it cliché, trite and all those other adjectives I just kind of know what they mean.