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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Greenberg

February 21st, 2011
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I was really captivated by The Squid and the Whale when I first saw it, and I think that first viewing made me interested for life in whatever future projects writer/director Noah Baumbach would undertake.  I was bummed to have missed Greenberg when it was released to theatres last year, but was happy to catch up with it on DVD last month.

Ben Stiller plays the titular Greenberg: Roger Greenberg.  A tightly-wound fellow, Roger Greenberg has returned to Los Angeles after many years away (and, apparently, a brief stay in a mental institution).  While his wealthy brother, Phillip (Chris Messina) is out of town with his family, Roger has moved into his large house.  While Phillip has given Roger some projects as an ostensible reason for his visit (namely to use his carpenter skills to build a new doghouse for the family pet), it’s clear that the main reason for his stay is to somehow find himself again, and perhaps to return some stability to his life.

Though the film is called Greenberg, the movie opens by allowing us to spend a significant amount of time with a young woman named Florence (played by Greta Gerwig).  She is Phillip Greenberg’s assistant/nanny, and she’s assigned with taking care of some household chores in the family’s absence, and also to assist Roger if he needs help.  It’s that last assignment that proves tricky.  Though there’s a spark of attraction between the two, the young, cheerful Florence doesn’t quite know what to make of the occasionally depressed, always difficult forty year-old Roger.

As always, director and co-writer Noah Baumbach (he shares story credit with his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh) is able to mine a lot of comedy from the painfully awkward collisions of slightly-damaged people.  Well, in this case, I think it’s fair to say that Roger Greenberg is more than just slightly damaged.  Mr. Baumbach and Mr. Stiller make brave choices in allowing their lead character to be extraordinarily unlikable at times.  The film is very funny on occasions, and much of that humor is derived from Greenberg’s neuroses (such as his proclivity for writing long letters of complaint to any agency or business that has offended him in the slightest).  But the film is also tough to watch at times.  Greenberg’s insecurities cause him to lash out at those people trying (perhaps against their better judgment) to be in his life.  In particular, he’s terribly cruel to Florence at several points in the film, in a way that really dares the audience to give up on this character.

But somehow — and this is really a testament to Mr. Baumbach’s skill as a writer/director — we never quite do, and by that final car-ride — in which Greenberg has to make an important decision on the direction of his life, at least for the immediate future — it’s tough not to be rooting for him.  But even here, in the ending, Mr. Baumbach avoids any cliche romantic comedy trope happy endings.  Though the film’s climax allows for a small amount of uplift and hope, it’s also delightfully ambiguous, and one is left wondering whether Florence is heading down the path to happiness or unhappiness.

Ben Stiller dials his usual mania and energy way, way down, and he turns in a terrifically layered performance as Roger Greenberg.  One can see in all of his tics and mannerisms Roger’s increasingly desperate efforts to find some way to exert a measure of control over the world and his surroundings.  In some ways, Greta Gerwig is even more impressive in the less showy role of Florence.  She’s the “normal one” next to Roger, and yet Ms. Gerwig imbues Florence with an enormous inner life of her own.  She’s an interesting, complex, slightly-lost person herself, and I appreciated the film’s attention to her character.

There are some talented actors and actresses in supporting roles, but I was particularly taken with Rhys Ifans as Ivan, the one friend who Roger has somehow been able to hold on to.  Ivan is a fascinating character — I’d love to see a whole movie about this guy!  In Ivan we see externalized what, it becomes increasingly apparent, is going on inside of Roger: that is the struggle to deal with the disappointment of youthful dreams that were never realized, and the search for a way to enter adulthood while still holding on to those aspects of one’s youth that one particularly enjoyed and valued.  Ivan is, in many ways, the saddest character in the film, but in some ways he’s also the most centered and normal.  There’s a hopefulness in Ivan, small and hidden though it may be, that gives the character a spark that is quite endearing.  Whereas Greenberg has withdrawn from the world, Ivan is doing his very best to make the most of what he has in his life, however little that might be.  It’s a really well-written character, and Mr. Ifans does a phenomenal job in the role.

Make no mistake — Greenberg is not a laugh-riot, not by any means.  It’s meandering and weird and difficult — just like most of the characters in the film.  It’s a much looser, almost casual film than the tightly written and plotted The Squid and the Whale, and while Greenberg might not be on par with that film, it’s certainly a unique, idiosyncratic film in its own right that is worthy of your attention.  If you want a fun popcorn movie, choose something else.  But if you’re interested in a more complex, challenging character study/comedy/drama, then give this film a look.

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