The Ghost Writer, Greenberg (2010)
Pierce Brosnan is a switch-hitting movie-star/actor – Hugh Grant is another – who uses his handsomeness as implicit satirical barb. The joke of a number of Brosnan performances is that he’s every bit as self-absorbed and mercenary as his getting-better-with-age looks imply. This attitude syncs with the world view of many of Roman Polanski’s movies, particularly his mysteries (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Ninth Gate); as the punchline of many of his pictures is the obviousness of their solution: the clearest explanation is usually correct, but everyone still misses it, they’re distracted by their own self-absorption and wishful-thinking and need to over-complicate. Brosnan, with his what-you-see-is-exactly-what-I-am self-critique, is an ideal embodiment of Polanski’s cynicism, which isn’t tedious because we see how amused Polanski is; the director has a gift for making futility funny.
As former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, under investigation for suspicious involvement with the torture of suspected terrorists by the CIA (an allusion to Tony Blair), Brosnan carries a little more weight in the middle than usual and subtly undermines his own authority as a self-reliant star; his Lang is a charismatic cipher that’s more than a little vulnerable and lost, and this is never more obvious than when Lang is, of course, at his most blustery and self-impressed. Stars pretend to challenge their vanity all the time, many of them never seem to be happier than when gaining or losing weight for an Oscar, but Brosnan doesn’t rub your face in it – he’s a good looking man playing a good looking man whose perhaps limited usefulness has begun to reach its potential end. That, in its quietness, is sadly somewhat daring for a movie star. This is Brosnan’s best performance since the terrific, under-seen, The Tailor of Panama.
The rest of the movie matches him; you watch The Ghost Writer with the simple, exhilarating pleasure of knowing that every single scene is played in exactly the right tone and held for exactly the right amount of time – and that everything on the surface is a casual, resigned parlor game. The picture is, by general definition, a “political thriller”, but that conjures thoughts of bloated, convoluted, earnest messes. Polanski’s picture is another of his domestic power plays in restricted spaces, in this case, the Langs’ gorgeous, creepy vacation hideaway somewhere off the East Coast. The house, as others have written, is a character in itself (I love Glenn Kenny’s observation that the Langs’ residence is everything the sterile, nearly sci-fi environment of Branagh’s remake of Sleuth wanted to be) and the place has, with masterly Polanski suggestiveness, the air of a hard, too-geometrically “right” piece of art that looks as if it could actually hurt you. Images of Lang’s “ghost”, the titular writer assigned to oversee his memoirs played by Ewan McGregor, sitting in front of windows revealing vast expanses of gray, insinuating nothingness have the kind of light, under-the-skin eeriness that was sorely lacking in this year’s earlier Shutter Island. The plot only makes as much sense as it needs to, and the final twist doesn’t quite have the bite that seems to be intended, but Ghost Writer is still mid to top-shelf Polanski, with wonderfully pared, nasty dialogue, and other sly, confident performances by McGregor (the first to deliver on the benefit of the doubt extended him for fifteen years), Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, and, yes, Kim Cattrall. I wish the picture had a little more sexual heat, but that might not even be appropriate anyway; sex is just more procedure for these characters, like the formal dinners or the press conferences. The only element of common life that’s discussed with any passion here is the booze.
Noah Baumbach is a very talented filmmaker, and I’ve enjoyed, to varying extents, all of his pictures; but he could stand to learn that it isn’t always soft-soaping to occasionally allow characters to authentically enjoy themselves and one another – even the most miserable can, by decree of odds, experience a great kiss, or a really good hamburger, or, God forbid, love that isn’t tainted by hypocrisy. Baumbach is so obsessed with undermining platitudes that he over-compensates and winds up with something equally false in the other direction. I thought this worked in the overly reviled Margot at the Wedding, because I took the picture as a parody of the lies we sell one another at get-togethers, particularly weddings. But Baumbach’s new picture, Greenberg, isn’t a parody of anything – it is meant to be taken as a more or less straight (yet qualified) exploration of L.A., as well as an attempt to inject a contemporary movie with the loose threads and more novelistic, misleadingly rambling, structures of 1970s pictures such as those made by Hal Ashby, Paul Mazursky, and the Irvin Kershner of Loving. But Baumbach can’t get beyond a theatre of redundant, uncomfortable sequences in which, to quote one of the characters, “hurt people hurt people”.
That said, Greenberg is still one of Baumbach’s best pictures, and it’s nice to see a director look to the 1970s cinema for more than a chance to strip-mine the ironically beautiful grain aesthetics. Greenberg isn’t just pretty (though it is pretty), it structurally resembles 1970s mid-life pictures in allowing characters to just hang out. The opening credits sequence is particularly quiet and evocative: of terminally insecure/vulnerable Florence (Greta Gerwig) singing along with Steve Miller as she runs errands for her employer, a rich family that means clearly more to her than just a paycheck. It is established – in a few appealingly quick, lucid early scenes – that Florence looks at this as her family, particularly in her poignant concern for the house pooch.
Ben Stiller’s Greenberg is the black sheep of the family, and he moves in to house sit while everyone else (except Florence, who isn’t family when it really counts) ships off to Vietnam for reasons that are probably related to business. Greenberg, of course, falls into bed with Florence, allowing Baumbach another of his pictures in which every taken-for-granted convention is quietly dismantled with awkwardness and resentment. As I said above, it gets a little old, but the actors are vivid and impressive, and they shake up Baumbach’s scheme. Stiller doesn’t play a “prick” but an actual prick recovering from a stay in a mental institution that was probably more justified than everyone acknowledges. Unlike a number of comedians playing serious versions of their persona, Stiller doesn’t go dull and plead for pathos – his line readings are consistently surprising, and his physical acting is somewhat extraordinary (he’d fit with the Lang house). I’ve seen Gerwig in three or four pictures, and I still can’t tell if she’s an actress yet, but she is certainly a presence, a wonderful correction to our movie society of falsely confident robot starlets. She’s, to risk hyperbole, one of the truest embodiments of a woman in her 20s that I’ve ever seen. Gerwig seems to be chemically incapable of the sort of detached, big-boobied snark that rules the female roosts these days, and a number of her scenes here are jarringly raw…and right. The “girl sings a song in a bar to show us her tortured inner self” bit has been used in nearly every movie featuring a girl with a tortured inner self, but it’s actually effective here because Gerwig shows us what’s at stake, that private inner flesh that Greenberg will either release or destroy, or, more likely, temporarily release and destroy.
There are two other very good performances: by Rhys Ifans, who is heartbreaking in a simple role, and by Jennifer Jason Leigh, another actor chemically incapable of emotional subterfuge. Greenberg has quite a bit to recommend it, but it feels trapped; and a great late sequence, a party scene, shows us the movie that Baumbach otherwise allows to get away from him: we see that Greenberg’s bitterness and hostility play well with the younger generations, as they mistake his desperation for confidence (as Florence has been). That’s an interesting observation that the movie should have run with, and it would’ve imbued Greenberg’s numbing brow-beating with a much needed tongue-in-cheek quality that would also let the air out of the pompous self-pity of most youth movies. Baumbach needs to let go, or at least take a cue from Polanski’s cynicism and relax a bit. Polanski makes checking out look glamorous, that might be dangerous but it’s also a good night at the movies.