The Pitch: Roger the Crabbin’ Boy. (And yes, before you say anything I know that the Roger the Cabin Boy thing in Captain Pugwash is an urban myth, but the pun doesn’t work otherwise, because he’s Roger Greenberg, not Tom. Okay? OKAY?)
The Review: Well, you’ll have to pardon me for being a little grouchy. I think it’s partly because I had to go to see this twice (having had to leave to pick up my wife half way through the first time I went to see it; more on that later), and partly because if you spend long enough in the company of a man like Roger Greenberg, it’s bound to rub off just a little. Misanthropes and curmudgeons aren’t new as central characters, but the trick if you’re a filmmaker is to get your audience to engage with unsavoury characters, even if you don’t necessarily like them straight off.
Roger Greenberg, though, is a little more complex than that. Rather than direct misanthropy, he alienates himself from the world around him through fear and an unwillingness to connect. And although he comes off as miserly, and he looks his fear of age in the face directly through an uncomfortable birthday dinner, he seems to have a real sense of what’s wrong with the world, but it’s locked in minute detail, rather than in the bigger picture, stuck writing letters to Starbucks about the culture they’ve created rather than trying to fix the important things in life. Consequently, his faults and his unpredictability make him fascinating to us, the audience.
It takes two to tango, or in this case mumble, and the other in this case is Greta Gerwig, whose Florence is the yin to Greenberg’s yang. Where he avoids people, she is the life and soul, and even sings on stage; but they are equally lacking in self confidence and self esteem, and that gives Roger the upper hand, at least to start with. Their relationship is like two revolving magnets – pulled together inexplicably, then pushing each other away almost equally without reason, and we end up wanting him to be with her because we know she’s good for him, but also sensing that maybe she should still be pushing away if she knows what’s good for her. Nonetheless, Gerwig is the emotional bedrock of the movie and allows us to connect to the story through her frustrated emotions.
Other characters swirl around in the mix, as Greenberg reflects on the fifteen years of love and friendships that have gotten away from him, most notably Rhys Ifans’ likeable Ivan and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s distant ex-girlfriend Beth. Most of the characters seem to either pity or condemn Greenberg for what he is, and that only serves to feed his neuroses further. What sits on the surface of Greenberg the movie is a study in character, reflected in the passage of time, where almost no-one is happy and the only people who have direction have left the country or are leaving it. But scratch beneath that surface, and you’ll find the neuroses of the characters that reflect our own natures, the parts of ourselves that we successfully hide or try to forget about, and you’ll then find yourself much happier to spend time in their company than they would be spending time in yours.
And as for seeing it twice, or at least part of it? What struck me was the difference in reactions of my fellow cinema-goers; uncomfortable situations or amusing moments met with stony silence the first time I saw it, but warmly embraced and appreciated the second. The differences in people are sometimes reflected on both sides of the screen, so take a friend if you’re going to this one – it could make all the difference.
Why see it at the cinema: This is partly about what’s on screen, including every last expressive millimetre of Greta Gerwig’s face, and partly for the social barometer that seeing this with a large crowd of people will give you. Especially if most of them are on their own, looking mainly grumpy.
The Score: 8/10