Greenberg (2010)

Written and directed by: Noah Baumbach

Greenberg_poster          There’s something about a title that doesn’t tell you anything that tells you just enough. Part of me finds it odd when a story is named after a character. That character usually doesn’t exist outside of their own narrative realm, so how can a title possible say anything about their story? How can such titles possibly be remembered in a world full of titles? The answer, it would seem, lies in the non-answer to these questions. A movie simply named after its own characters is making a bold statement: that’s its characters are so memorable, they can afford to be promoted simply by their names.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is one such character. The star of a simple, urban story he is, unsurprisingly, a quirky fellow, but even within that archetype he is uniquely written and portrayed. Greenberg’s story is shared with that of Florence (Greta Gerwig). Florence is a nanny for Greenberg’s brother’s well-off family. When the family takes a trip to Vietnam both are called in to play a role taking care of the house and its dog.

When we are introduced to Greenberg we are left to wonder why we are invested in him as an individual. He plays the song It Never Rains in California upon meeting Florence and it doesn’t quite resonate with her the way it does with him. Perhaps, in his head, at this moment, he is quirky. Perhaps in his head he’s worthy of the bold mononym Greenberg, but to us he could be any person having a conversation.

However, over the course of the film, Greenberg’s odd-ballness is allowed to bloom. The simplest way to describe him is as curmudgeon, albeit at least 15 years too young for the trope. He is also a young-man trying to find himself, albeit 15 years too old for that trope. Finally he is jealous and bullish, though in the least macho way possible. In short, Greenberg is quirky, but not in a way that can be described with a single adjective or stereotype. His story thus manages to be oddball without being cartoonish.

In essence, to watch Greenberg is to watch a rather subtle accomplishment. Films can be realist simply by virtue of their depicting realistic events: such realism can be relatively effortless. Greenberg, however, is a script that searches the mundane for the absurd and broadcasts if back to us in its original, mundane form. It is rife with imagination, yet never takes us into imagination land.

If there is a downside to films like Greenberg it’s that their subtle pace can make it hard to notice when an important detail has in fact been revealed. It can be hard to know which lines and moments should be viewed with greater attention than other component’s of the characters’ banter. This flaw is of limited importance, however, as the effectiveness of films like Greenberg comes from their character developments not their plot. I may struggle to tell you before long exactly what its story is, but this boldly named film certainly lives up to the high standard it sets for itself.



Punch Drunk Love (2002)

Written and Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Punch-Drunk_Love_posterI recently sat down to rewatch Punch Drunk Love for the second time. I credit it as one of the works that helped nurse my newfound passion for film. It tells a story that is entertainingly quirky, but that also sufficiently ambiguous to challenge audiences to use their imaginations. It also takes a textbook example of a mainstream comedian, Adam Sandler, and brings out his acting talents, featuring him as Barry Egan, a man who is soft-spoken and anxious and also struggling with an anger management problem. This time around I enjoyed the film as much as I did when I first viewed it. Nonetheless, I was struck by how different it seemed.

When I first saw Punch Drunk Love, I saw myself as engaging in a challenging element of my cinematic growth. I was watching a story that made no sense: it had something to do with a harmonium, something to do with a blue suit, and something to do with a shady furniture store. Egan made no sense either: his job felt like a fiction, his intentions fluid and his desires opaque. I was fascinated by Egan and rooted for him, still, he was no rational actor.

Two-and-a-half-years, and numerous indie films with understated plots later, watching Punch Drunk Love proved a fundamentally different experience for me. Egan remained idiosyncratic, yet not unintelligibly so. He randomly came across a harmonium, so he tried to learn to play it: that makes sense, especially given his seeming lack of other passions in life. He bought a lot of pudding to get coupons: it seems like a risky interpretation of a sales deal, but everyone needs a hobby. In short, in my second viewing, I saw Barry not as some artistically, provocative fictional enigma, but a man looking for meaning while struggling with some combination of loneliness, anxiety, depression and anger management issues.

Of course, it is quite common to notice things on a second viewing one didn’t see the first time around. It also makes sense that plot details such as Barry’s behaviour can seem less weird when one knows to expect them. When it comes to viewing Punch Drunk Love, however, this experience was particularly striking. Barry has seven sisters who are controlling, cold, and judgemental towards him. The first time I watched Punch Drunk Love  in a way, I was those sisters. The second time around I was not: I may not have been Barry, but I understood his motives enough to be baffled and disappointed by his sisters’ behaviour towards him.

I do not know what your experience watching this film will be like. What I can promise is that it is a simple story that is too dark to be called “low-stakes,” but too absurd to be called “high-stakes.” If this kind of plotting, and a successful usage Adam Sandler’s talents in a (relatively speaking) serious role (Community fans will also appreciate getting to see Greendale alumni Luis Guzman feature as his friend, Lance) appeal to you, you too may come to count this oddball love story amongst your favorites.


The Big Sick (2017)

Directed by: Michael Showalter Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani.

The_Big_SickThe premise of The Big Sick is simple. It’s the story of Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), a Pakistani-American comedian, who falls for Emily, a white psychology graduate student (Zoe Kazan). They break up, only for them to be reunited when Emily goes into a coma that takes up a significant portion of the film.


            I was not expecting to enjoy the Big Sick. Romantic comedies, even when funny, often follow a formula. The first third of the film is entertaining, but then one character, usually the man, makes a predictable mistake or displays a predictable flaw, and then spends the rest of the (often now unfunny) film showing that he can redeem himself and (unsurprisingly) win back his love interest.


The Big Sick breaks this mould in two important ways. Firstly, it’s based on a true story (I won’t say more since viewers who go into the film knowing nothing about it will be pleasantly surprised by its credits). This solves the predictability problem, as it means audiences can watch The Big Sick, not to see what will happen, but to see how things happen.


The second key difference between The Big Sick and other romantic comedies is that its main character doesn’t have a clearcut, over-generalized flaw. He is not “SELFISH,” “A LIAR,” etc. Rather his problems comes from having perfectly reasonable divided loyalties between his (in some ways) conservative Muslim-Pakistani family, and his white girlfriend.


The Big Sick keeps audiences interested through showing Kumail as part of three different worlds—his family’s world, his girlfriend’s family’s world, and the comedy world. Of the three, the third is the least entertaining (which is mostly a good thing—the film is funny without having to bring on characters who directly tell jokes). The problem with the comedians is simply that we don’t get to see much of their material, and of that material, only a portion is funny (and half of that humor is the result of Kumail’s roommate’s failed attempts at jokes). The two families, on the other hand, get to explore a range of scenes and jokes. We are not left wondering what problems exist in these families (we are largely told that up front), but instead are allowed to see how the families live in the worlds that these problems partially create.


Another of the film’s strengths is its supporting cast. In addition to giving a reasonable amount of screen time to Youtube star Bo Burnham (check him out here), the film prominently features Holly Hunter and Ray Romano in the roles of Emily’s parents. Romano’s character maintains a fairly consistent tone throughout the film. He is always funny, yet still believable in his portrayal of a person dealing with the potential loss of a child. Hunter’s character shows a greater range of emotion (and more outward grief) than Romano’s, but is not without funny moments of her own. Hunter and Romano’s performances perhaps best represent The Big Sick’s success as a romantic comedy—the characters, and the film, are funny sans vulgarity and sombre sans sappiness.


Of course there is far more to The Big Sick than I can reasonably comment on—namely the politics of how Kumail’s family is represented. In an interview with Vice, Kumail Nanjiani described the film as a mostly accurate representation of the family life he grew up with, though acknowledged he was taking a risk of perpetuating anti-south Asian stereotypes by depicting a family that practiced arranged marriage.

It can be easy to draw a line between good cinema and accessible cinema, but (if it hasn’t already been said) once a style of thought starts to sound a tad elitist, it’s probably not entirely true. The Big Sick is simply put a really good movie and can be enjoyed by causal movie goers and cinema snobs alike.