They say don't judge a book by its cover. Don't judge a movie either.
When 'Greenberg' was released into theaters this past spring, it had an appropriately melancholic one sheet, showing star Ben Stiller as the titular man-child who is having a mid-life crisis while house-sitting for his successful brother in Los Angeles. Showing Stiller looking very small against a field of white, it summed up the movie's angst-y mixture of alienation and contemplation, and set the right tone for the comedy/drama that followed.
For the home video release, Universal, apparently burned by the poor box office for 'Greenberg' (it didn't exactly bring in 'Night at the Museum 2' numbers), decided to present the movie like your typical romantic comedy.
Out is the white void of space, replaced by a montage-like border featuring tiny scenes from the movie, while the main focus of the poster is now a flirty picture of Stiller interacting with his adorable costar Greta Gerwig in a way more affable way than ever actually happens in the movie. (Stiller's character is kind of a loser/asshole, if I haven't already made that abundantly clear.)
There are now big blocks of text that fill the space in between Gerwig (adorable) and Stiller (not): "Extremely Entertaining!" exclaims The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, in big block letters. In even bigger, blockier letters is a quote from A.O. Scott, not from his day job as the frequently wonderful film critic from the New York Times, but from his night gig as populist host for the re-jiggered 'At the Movies' program (the one that used to be 'Siskel & Ebert' and has since been axed).
The entire, re-presentation of 'Greenberg' is supposed to suggest that the movie is fun, quirky, witty, and worthy of your attention. I agree with all of these things. It's an acerbic comedy that sticks with you in ways that few comedies these days do (another recent exception: the outrageously wonderful 'The Kids Are All Right'), full of pathos and heart and truth, especially when it comes to navigating the wasteland of Los Angeles without a car.
But this marketing ploy is also inherently false. The movie is persnickety, difficult, and at times almost painfully awkward. Wait - replace the word "almost" with the word "frequently." The movie was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, who directed the similarly cringe-worthy films 'Margot at the Wedding' and the more palpable 'The Squid and the Whale.' (Also, in his duties as Wes Anderson's collaborator, he co-wrote last year's great 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.') These are movies that don't warrant casual recommendation, and the same is true of 'Greenberg.' For a "funny" movie starring Ben Stiller, it goes to some pretty bleak places that I personally don't feel are for every viewer out there, especially if there's any kind of mood trying to be established (not exactly first date material, at home or in the theater).
That isn't to say that the movie isn't completely brilliant, because it is. I loved every second of it, even when it made me want to take a razorblade to my skin to exorcise all the scurrying vermin crawling around in there. It's a beautifully shot movie, photographed with loving detail by Harry Savides, who also shot 'Zodiac' and 'Birth' (he is very talented). And Stiller's performance is the most nuanced and fearless he's been in years, the perfect mixture of toxicity and smarmy charm. He's not the most lovable guy, but there will be another 'Meet the Parents' sequel this Christmas for all you folks who want to see him embarrass himself with no cathartic value.
This is Baumbach's second most tolerable movie, in terms of a wide audience, after 'The Squid and the Whale.' Part of it is the jangly, rambling quality of the film's narrative. Part of it is the aforementioned adorableness of Gerwig, who cut her teeth on the "mumblecore" sub-genre of American independent films. Part of it is the wonderful score by James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem fame. Part of it is that 70s-style vibe of aimless self-doubt. But none of it comes from that god awful cover art.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB dual-layer disc does not automatically play. Typical of Universal releases, there is no art on the disc itself (just a clear disc with blue lettering). It's BD-Live ready and I guess I'm supposed to say that it has "social network features" and "mobile features." It is Region A locked.
The disc's VC-1 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 2.35:1) mostly does the movie justice. Mostly.
When I saw this movie in the theater, I was blown away. Blown away I tells ya. There's this really wonderful Steadicam shot that follows Ben Stiller as he walks into a swimming pool that made my jaw drop. There was an amazing amount of depth to the images Savides captured, an almost three-dimensional quality, particularly in the velveteen darkness that accompanies a nighttime party scene towards the end of the movie.
That dimensionality isn't as present on the Blu-ray transfer, which instead emphasizes the more atonal quality to many of the sequences, which are obviously meant to mimic the hazy look of many 1970s movies (movies to which 'Greenberg' owes an obvious debt).
You'll notice this diffuse visual scheme from the word 'go,' as the 70s-style font choice of the opening titles fills up a vast panorama of Los Angeles. I'm not complaining. The sequences that made my eyes pop out of my head like a Tex Avery cartoon character still do the same, but there's just less depth there.
Technically, the disc is peerless: skin tones look great, blacks are deep and inky, and most shockingly, while there isn't any grain present the movie retains a decidedly filmic look and feel. There aren't any wonky technical issues either.
'Greenberg' is blessed with one of the year's best scores, by LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy. Thankfully, it is brought to beautiful life by a subtle and superb lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix.
This isn't the most dynamic mix out there, nor should it be, but it is one of the crispest, with dialogue coming through loud and clear and well prioritized. Scenes that require some ambient atmosphere, like the aforementioned party sequence, really bristle to life, and Murphy's laid-back, partially electronic score commands your attention every time it pops up (ditto the excellently selected soundtrack picks).
There isn't a whole lot of serious surround sound activity, which will certainly rub some people the wrong way, but this is the best kind of sound track, one that is absolutely faithful to the material. The long, awkward stretches of silence are appropriately silent, and everything that should sound good, does sound good. I say well done.
Also included on this disc are French DTS 5.1 and Spanish DTS 5.1 tracks and subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
The special features on this thing are totally lacking. Clearly, Universal didn't want to spend any more money on this film, an expensive little movie that really didn't make as much money as they would have liked. So it got virtually no attention with the home video release. There are some Blu-ray "exclusives" but they barely are worth mentioning. The entire spectrum of special features lasts less than ten minutes in total. That's disgusting. Especially for a movie this good.
I really loved 'Greenberg.' I know that seems weird to say about a movie as cold and alienating as this is, but there's something to be said for a film that actually examines the messy details of humanity. Ben Stiller, in an absolutely fearless role, shines as an awkward man-child trying to get his shit together. The Blu-ray features wonderful audio and video but really fails in the special features department, like, crash-and-burn fail. Don't be put off (or sucked in) by the cloyingly sentimentalized box art. This movie isn't for everyone. But if you want something that's a little more spice than sugar, this is the movie for you. You will be rewarded for going out on a limb and you'll be glad you did, even if you squirm while watching.