Speaking about his 1938 classic Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks later said that the film “had a great fault, and I learned an awful lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball, and since that time I learned my lesson and don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy.”
Well, even the old masters can be wrong. Yes, Baby was relentlessly bonkers, but it’s a feature of the movie, not a bug. With Greener Grass, first-time writer-directors-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe are the latest film artists to take away this correct interpretation of the vintage screwball comedy, grafting its everybody’s-nutty ethos onto a modernist meta-satire on social striving.
Set in an anonymous bedroom community, Greener Grass conjures a simulation of suburbia at its most PhotoShopped. As the title indicates, the lawns are vivid, and aggressively immaculate. Families dress in bright, coordinated colors — blue, pink or orange — and, in a creepy-hilarious statement on perfectionism, everybody wears braces well into their adult years. There are no automobiles in their cozy hamlet; everybody drives golf carts (which isn’t far from certain communities in, say, Ocala).
On the surface — and there’s a lot of surface — the residents of this florid Anytown affect an overzealous politeness. In one of the film’s funniest recurring gags, when four golf carts arrive simultaneously at a four-way stop, a logjam ensues because every driver insists on yielding to their neighbor.
Beneath this exterior, trouble and tension burble. The murder of a beloved yoga teacher has put everyone on edge, with the suspect, a bagger at the local supermarket, on the prowl for his next victim. Meanwhile, the Stepford Home of dim housewife Jill (DeBoer) is slowly unraveling. First, in a moment of surreal ingratiation, she gives away her new baby to neighbor Lisa (Luebbe), in a transaction as dispassionate as the transfer of a car title, after Lisa comments on beautiful the child is.
Then Jill’s meek son Julian (Julian Hillard), whose disastrous extracurriculars are the cause of much disappointment in the household, undergoes a beastly transformation that must be seen to be believed. And when a friend remarks that she has become a happier person after divorcing her husband, Jill seeks the same from her devoted spouse Nick (Beck Bennett), thus turning her once-enviable nuclear family to rubble.
Jill’s disintegration is the narrative through-line of Greener Grass, but the plot is almost tangential to the movie’s many surreal, short-form charms, which reflect their creators’ history with Upright Citizens Brigade while offering pungent overtures on contemporary society. In one inspired aside, a tea-and-pastries gathering among the homemakers becomes an exercise in communal bulimia. In another, Lisa’s son Bob (Asher Miles Fallica) watches one minute of a reality TV series called Kids With Knives, and instantly becomes an untamable demon child.
In both form and content, DeBoer and Luebbe harken, unconsciously or not, to a variety of influences. The gauche uses of zooms, coupled with Samuel Nobles’ deliberately dated synth-driven score, reference low-budget ’80s horror cinema, while upbeat instrumental flourishes between scenes suggest ’90s domestic sitcoms. I spotted the absurdist, rule-shattering repetitions of the comedy duo Tim & Eric; the withering, scorched-earth satire of Bobcat Goldthwait’s films, like God Bless America; the morbid fantasias of Yorgos Lanthimos; and the wry suburban implosions undergirding Donnie Darko.
There are so many Easter eggs embedded in the directors’ mise-en-scène that it will take a home viewing, and copious usage of the pause button, to catch them all. But beyond the demented genius DeBoer and Luebbe instill in every frame lies a method to the madness. The directors identify potent strains of vapid narcissism and ruthless, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses competitiveness, wherein only the strong survive.
For all of its laugh-out-loud comedy, Jill’s downfall, triggered by her constant need to curry favor with those around her, is a tragedy of social Darwinism. If you feel unexpectedly shaken up after 90 minutes of ridiculous mirth, the filmmakers have done their jobs.
GREENER GRASS. Directors: Joceyln DoBoer and Dawn Luebbe; Cast: Joceyln DoBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden; Distributor: IFC Midnight; Unrated; Opens: Today at Lake Worth Playhouse; also available on video on demand.