Ben Stiller takes off his clown shoes and rubber mask for Greenberg, a comedy that frequently teeters on the edge of despair before pulling itself back with a well placed joke or uncannily accurate observation. Stiller looks gaunt and frail, his small size accentuated by the mass of unruly hair he has accumulated recently, and his turn as Roger Greenberg is enough for me to forgive him for Night at the Museum 2, Meet the Fockers and any number of other atrocities that he has committed to celluloid over the past decade.
Stiller’s character is an OCD misfit; a carpenter from New York who returns to LA for six weeks to house/dog-sit for his successful brother while he takes his family to Vietnam. Here he meets Florence (Greta Gerwig), the organised but subtly quirky assistant to his brother, and they develop a relationship which, like every other aspect of this film, feels realistic and cliché-free. This is a rare treat indeed, as nothing is idealised, and the couple’s every encounter feels natural and unforced.
It is revealed early on that Greenberg has just left a psychiatric hospital after a mental breakdown, and his social manner flits between shyness and an extroverted, combative aggression which are both pegged down by a self-assuredness that deny him the ability to accept criticism or make apologies with any ease. This has clearly resulted in the destruction of many important relationships over the years, and although his time in therapy has left him seeking partial redemption as he rejoins the LA crowd of his youth, it is clear that fundamentally he has not changed.
Like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Greenberg sees no reason to be anything other than honest, and it is this honesty that strikes others as rude and bitter. His character is epitomised in the letters of complaint which he writes to corporations and government authorities over the course of the film, all of which are hilarious, but all tinged with an Aspergic obsession for order and a world that conforms to Greenberg’s often unreasonable ideals.
His relationship with Florence is juxtaposed with his reunion with former friend and band mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans), now working as a computer technician and suffering under a temporary separation from his wife and child. Greenberg and Ivan were part of a band that was offered a record deal fifteen years earlier, and it was Greenberg’s controlling, overconfident nature that lost them their one shot at fame. Ivan has sympathy for Greenberg in his current state because he got over addiction to drugs in his twenties, although Greenberg fails to see the connection with this rehabilitation and his current position as a recently released mental patient. Ifans’ performance is just as strong as his co-stars, evoking both melancholy and humour.
What marks out Greenberg from its contemporaries is the script, which deals with the themes surrounding its lead’s middle aged dilemmas with wit that is not so polished as to be beyond the realms of everyday conversational speech. Scene after scene rolls by, developing the characters causally but completely, and there are some truly stand-out encounters. I particularly enjoyed the way in which Greenberg’s brother Phillip and his wife were characterised during their preparations for the trip to Vietnam, defined entirely by their dictation of menial tasks to Florence in a manner that was both polite and callously dismissive.
Greenberg is funny and painful in the same breath, and it begs to be seen, because its message is poignant and ultimately warming without being stereotypically sentimental or romantic, and its ending is frustratingly poetic, which is all I’ll say on the matter. See it.
I enjoy glorious, papery fossil Clint Eastwood behind the camera as much as in front of it. His style is calm without being ponderous, and unfussy without being artless. So you’d expect him to bring the right kind of gravitas to the subject of the South African 1995 Rugby World Cup, which for many signalled the true end of apartheid in a once divided country. The result is Invictus, a movie that is as solid as a rock and slightly more interesting than the average documentary, laced with performances that would have seemed like perfect Oscar bait if it wasn’t for their understated, ostensibly accurate nature. I’m not sure why Hollywood had to make this movie, but I’m cautiously glad of its existence. Which is roughly how I feel about Stonehenge, or Ke$ha’s song Tik Tok.
Morgan Freeman, one of the few people to have a voice that sounds edible, plays Nelson Mandela, and he’s had a pretty convincing performance wrangled out of him, presenting Mandela in a way that feels human and real, in spite of the gargantuan weight of the role. Matt Damon snatches second billing as South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, and he also takes a considered approach to characterisation. The scenes in which the two interact are some of the best, and although Damon’s part could have been played by many other actors, I cannot think of another person better suited to channelling Mandela than Morgan Freeman.
Here is my inevitable digest of the plot: Mandela is released after his years of incarceration, runs for and wins the presidency of a democratised South Africa in ’94, realises that the deep wounds of the country can perhaps be fixed by something as simple as a sporting event, and then goes about engineering a truce between the white and black civilians that involves supporting the Springboks on their 1995 Rugby World Cup campaign. He ropes in the help of Pienaar, and the film shows these two as the only ones who ultimately believe in the unifying power of sport whilst those on both sides express doubt in varying degrees. If you have any idea about the history behind the film, or you understand how Hollywood narratives work, you’ll already know the ending. Getting there involves sitting through a well formed but excessively glossy tale.
I’ve been assured by some rugby loving friends that the set piece remakes of the actual matches are quite laughable, and you can definitely tell that Mr Damon, although shaped roughly like a rugby player, does not fill Francois Pienaar’s 6’3” shadow with his 5’10” frame. For most people who lack an appreciation for the finer points of the sport, this isn’t really an issue, and the games themselves play only a small role in the film.
Aside from the interaction between Freeman and Damon, the supremely akward mixing of white and black security teams who are charged with protecting Mandela creates some of the film’s finer moments. It’s almost enough to make you forget the slightly schmaltzy sequence in which Pienaar and the team visit the prison where Mandela spent many years, which Eastwood overeggs with shots of a ghostly Freeman performing hard labour and wistful philosophising in an unnecessary interpretation of what Pienaar must have been imagining. The claustrophobic nature of Mandela’s actual prison cell is poignant enough on its own.
Invictus is a film that is propelled by the weight of history, and only remains interesting because the events it depicts actually occurred. Without this it might be considered to be a fairly bland drama that is neither entirely political nor particularly dramatic. However, it has been constructed with care, and its ride through the 1995 Rugby World Cup is smooth and predictable, which is comforting in its way.