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Friday, March 26, 2010

Seeing Green

The two most recent movies I've seen are Greenberg (written and directed by Noah Baumbach) and Green Zone (directed by a genius who happens to be named Greengrass). They have little else in common, but both are flawed movies worth seeing.

Paul Greengrass directed the amazing United 93, which recreated some of the events of 9/11, electrifyingly blending hyper-realistic fidelity to facts with the intensification of brilliant editing and camerawork. He applied similar kinetic brilliance to two spy thrillers (the second and third Bourne movies) that would have been far more ridiculous and less consequential without him.

Now Greengrass and his Bourne star Matt Damon have come up with a blend of the two approaches in Green Zone: a fictionalized action-movie plot is set within the framework of an all too real situation -- the early months of the Iraq war. The results are a mixed bag, and the film actually works better as an illustrated criticism of flawed Pentagon policies than it does as a thriller. The cat-and-mouse climactic sequences never build to the intensity of either the Bourne films or United 93.

But there is much to enjoy and admire along the way: excellent performances by Damon, Brendan Gleeson, Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, and especially Khalid Abdalla as an Iraqi citizen caught up in the madness of the situation. No doubt Brian Helgeland's script oversimplifies, but it manages to convey with riveting clarity what is going horribly wrong in the Pentagon's handling of the incipient insurgency.

Now maybe Paul Greengrass should try making a movie without terrorists, spies, or guns in it. He's in danger of getting stuck in a rut. But whatever his next film is, I'll be in line to see it. He's one of the very best filmmakers around.

Noah Baumbach, from all evidence, is as unconcerned with things like cinematography and editing as Greengrass is obsessive about them. Even though Baumbach's Greenberg was shot by the sublime cinematographer Harris Savides (Elephant, Zodiac, Milk), it is not the work of a visual storyteller; it does avoid being downright ugly, like his best previous film, The Squid and the Whale. Luckily Baumbach is better as a writer, even though this script seems to me more contrived and less interesting than Squid.

Ben Stiller is wonderful in the title role, a lonely, emotionally erratic man whose habitual hostility keeps nearly everyone at a distance -- an unlikely center for an off-center romantic comedy, which is more or less what Greenberg turns out to be. Set at the fringes of Southern Californian wealth -- much of the action takes place in Greenberg's wealthy brother's house, but the main characters are precariously underemployed -- the movie at times resembles an indie version of a James L. Brooks comedy (As Good as It Gets, Spanglish). It also has an occasional resemblance to Larry David's comedy of discomfort and wince-inducing inappropriate behavior. I would certainly never have come up with those comparisons for Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding or The Squid and the Whale.

The other actors are also good, and the movie has its moments of hilarity and poignancy, but to me both the characters and situations seemed forced, as if they were cobbled together from bits of interesting observations about real people and relationships -- without being transformed into convincing art. It's also a rather sad, upsetting movie, and since it feels unfinished, suspended, the unhappiness may stick with you. Which may indeed be what is intended, and is not necessarily a bad thing for art to do, however imperfectly. Greenberg is flawed but worth seeing.

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