From the ever-inventive mind of Noah Baumbach comes a deep comedy that seems to combine elements from his last two films.
The two sisters dominating Margot at the Wedding (cross-reference below) are now a pair of equally disparate brothers. Phillip Greenberg (Chris Messina) is a successful L.A. businessman who has a charming wife (Susan Traylor), two adorable kids (Sydney and Koby Rouviere) and fine-looking, extra-devoted personal assistant, Florence—as in Nightingale: there are few unintentional references in Baumbach’s script—Marr (Greta Gerwig is ideally cast). Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), as the story begins, has just been released from a New York cuckoo’s nest. He’s going to house-sit and recover what’s left of his sanity. For six weeks his goal is “to do nothing”—from work to relationships.
Fans of Fantastic Mr Fox (cross-reference below) will delight in Mahler, the household’s beloved German Shepherd who, tellingly, ends up contracting an “auto-immune deficiency disorder,” giving nervous nights to Phillip and his brood who are in Vietnam opening yet another hotel and a common bond between Florence and Roger. No one’s surprised that the forty-something immediately falls off his no-relationship wagon (and she hers, “I’ve just come out of a relationship”) into the ever-generous arms of his brother’s devoted servant.
With a premise like that, this production should score in more than the bedroom scenes (Roger’s early-on muff dive is a hopeful beginning to madcap hilarity that is seldom revisited).
While there are some engaging moments, the film has difficulty sustaining its overall pace and flow. Some of the small details may lose a few folks or completely alienate them. For example, a reference to The Great Gatsby (during Roger’s lightly attended pool party) may either confuse or slip by entirely. The supporting cast (notably Rhys Ifans as Roger’s former band-mate Ivan and Merritt Wever as Gina, Florence’s special confidante) add welcome relief but aren’t given enough material to fully support their characterization.
Ivan’s on the wagon, doing a computer job (like Roger he’d rather be playing again in their nearly-successful band, The Magic Marker) that passes the time. He currently lives in a motel, hoping for reconciliation with his wife and—consequently—more time with his son. Gina’s always there for Florence—except when it’s better for the plot if she’s indisposed. The annoying neighbours-who-have-the-run-of-the-pool gag, while hardly original, never finds a comedic/dramatic payoff big enough to justify the effort. Roger’s penchant for penning critical letters-to-the-editor (and one very long phone-call confession) finally hits pay dirt in the the New York Times but the importance of that moment (and how it will be revealed to his ever-patient paramour) flies by so quickly that the off-screen joy-of-discovery will come as a surprise to many viewers.
As usual with Baumbach, his insights into the human experience are well worth the price of admission, but occasionally, he’s too-clever-by-half. Imagine finally confessing to a reformed “partyer” that it was rampant addictions that were really at the root of their break-up. On paper the moment seems an emotional knockout, only to lose its potential impact because the deeply-seated revelation now comes from one who has just had more than his share of scotch, coke-lines and pot. Instead of resolving a long-simmering resentment, the “tables turned” belie the found courage to confront.
Happily, Mahler’s drug dependency will be short-lived, perhaps deserving a sequel all to himself. JWR