Recently I checked in again with two directors whose films earned praise in the past. Noah Baumbach made a name for himself with The Squid and the Whale, a pithy study in domestic pathology that traced a family’s miseries to the black hole of narcissism and rage inhabited by the father, a failed writer. Baumbach’s new movie, Greenberg, explores similar terrain, charting the travails of a forty-year-old carpenter and ex–rock musician, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), who returns to his L.A. stomping grounds to housesit for his wealthy, vacationing brother and family.

Greenberg has suffered a recent breakdown, and he exudes the nervous spaciness of the walking wounded. “I’ve been trying to do nothing,” he tells old friends who ask what he’s been up to. Still resented by his former bandmates for having ruined their chance at a record contract fifteen years earlier (he didn’t want to deal with the big record companies and their BS, he insists), Greenberg is trying to figure out how his life went off the rails. Arrogant, but afflicted by paralyzing insecurities, he sits in his brother’s house, writing crackpot letters of complaint to various companies whose products and services have pricked his majestic annoyance.

In the background lurk the sort of family issues that were up-front in Squid—a passing jab from Greenberg’s hostile brother, for instance, implies some kind of blame for their mother’s death. But this time Baumbach does not delve in; he’s after the quality of disconnectedness, and it is Greenberg’s slow float through alienation that takes center stage. The film delivers an affecting portrayal of anxiety. Dragged by a friend to a crowded party, Greenberg is afflicted with dread. Stiller’s unease is contagious; watching made me feel trapped and fidgety—and also confused. Is Greenberg delusional and paranoid, or just narcissistic and selfish? The film itself has the structure of a romantic comedy, but scene after scene delivers jolts of ugly behavior on the part of our protagonist, much of it aimed at Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s personal assistant, a sweetly passive twenty-something upon whom Greenberg fastens, with all the romantic nicety of a junkyard dog. There’s a half-amusing, Being There kind of absurdity in the prospect of Millennial Angelenos who admire Greenberg’s anomie and view him as a lifestyle guru. “I respect you,” says Florence, “for doing nothing and being so cool about it.”

Roger Greenberg has been proclaimed the role that Stiller was born to play, and his look has been reshaped for drama: he’s gaunt and solemn, his hair worn long enough to ensure that those XXL ears, the most inherently comical ears in movies, stay covered at all times. In horn-rimmed glasses he looks scholarly and agonized; when he feels cornered, his eyes go wide and he bursts out in explosions of crass, wounding vehemence. But it’s hard to grant a self-pitying protagonist, prone to extravagant emotional cruelty against women, even a minimal indulgence of sympathy. “He seems vulnerable,” Florence explains to her best friend, who keeps telling her to run away from Greenberg as fast as she can: “Hurt people hurt people.” True, but a tough hook to hang this kind of movie on. In The Squid and the Whale, the singlemindedness of the father’s anger siphoned off the film’s tragic potential and reduced him to a vain, embittered buffoon. Greenberg suffers the same fate, and leaves a viewer feeling—well, trapped and fidgety.

The writer-director Raymond De Felitta is developing a niche as a maker of outer-borough comedies, funny and heartfelt stories of lives playing out in little-noticed corners of New York City. His 2000 film Two Family House was one of the last decade’s most delightful small movies. Set in 1950s Staten Island, it told the story of Buddy, a young WWII vet who fantasizes about being a nightclub singer and buys a rundown house with the intention of opening a club. His wife, brimming with scorn for his serial failures at various jobs, does her best to crush his dreams. “You think you’re a big shot,” she fulminates. “You think you’re somebody you aren’t.”

The new film has a similar setup. The locale this time is City Island, New York, a hard-to-reach part of the Bronx that looks like a working-class Nantucket. It’s a place with a sharp newcomer/townie divide, the “mussel-suckers” versus the “clam diggers.” Such categories clue us in to the way De Felitta takes ethnicity and class, these essentially tribal relations, and sets them against the universalizing force of American dreaming. The dreamer this time is Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia), a prison guard—correctional officer, he stubbornly insists—with secret visions of grandeur. Vince keeps a Brando biography stashed away for bathroom reading, and tells his wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), that he’s at a regular poker game, when in fact he’s attending an acting class. Joyce, disbelieving the poker excuse, has concluded that her man is having an affair, and her resentment bubbles up acidly at every turn.

As in Two Family House, De Felitta makes comedy from a serious insight into family life—namely, the wear-and-tear of marriage over time, and the toll it takes on our capacity to dream big for one another. “I hardly know you,” Vince says to an acting classmate (Emily Mortimer) with whom he is drawn, via a class assignment, into a mutual disclosure of life secrets. “Yes,” she answers, “isn’t it lovely?” De Felitta understands that what we seek in strangers is freedom from the constraints of family life; his film is a comic exploration of the incremental alienation of marriage and the inexorable growth of secrecy. “I’d have to go so far back to explain,” Vince says when his lies start to unwind. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

And Vince, it turns out, isn’t the only Rizzo with some explaining to do. The daughter, Vivian, unbeknownst to her parents, has dropped out of college to work as a stripper. The witty and sarcastic fifteen-year-old son, Vinnie, has developed a bizarre obsession with watching morbidly obese women cook and eat. And Vince himself has another, far bigger secret: decades ago he fathered a child whom he then abandoned; the child, Tony (Steven Strait), has grown up into a car thief and petty criminal. When Vince happens across him at the correctional facility, about to be paroled but needing family to vouch for him, he offers to take him in—without telling anyone the truth about his motives. Tony also happens to be a handsome, well-muscled lad, and once he starts flexing his Adonis-like good looks around the Rizzo house, Joyce—not to be left out—undertakes to create a few secrets of her own.

It’s not exactly a smoothly purring plot apparatus, in other words; and as these story lines careen toward their simultaneous disclosures, City Island takes on an overheated air of farce. There’s plenty of zingy humor along the way. As relations among the Rizzos collapse into recrimination and revelation, Vinnie Jr. surveys the wreckage and pronounces, with sarcastic joy: “Ahhh, good times ahead—nothing but good, sweet, breezy times!” Later we watch a montage of family members pursuing their secret escapades as Tony Bennett croons “One Lie Leads to Another.” De Felitta’s materials have their dark side, but his attitude is resolutely sunny; the result is a jauntily upbeat take on people’s fantasies, secrets, sins, and even their infidelities. “God busted me when I needed it,” Vince says in a closing voiceover, “and gave me a second chance when I needed that too.”

This kind of independent film is increasingly hard to sell these days. There’s nothing edgy or challenging in De Felitta’s movies; he takes up age-old themes and handles them in a straightforward way; and—as his detractors note—he’s certainly unafraid to risk sentimentality. But audiences love them. Deftly steering between tragedy and comedy, De Felitta zeroes in on his characters’ hearts, and mixes up a draught of humor, generosity, and regret that produces something like exhilaration.

Usually when a movie is boosted as a “feel-good” entertainment, with lots of heart and humor, I run in the opposite direction. But not this guy’s movies. What can I say? You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.


Related: Rand Richards Cooper's review of The Squid & the Whale

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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Published in the 2010-06-04 issue: View Contents
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