April 29, 2010
Ben Stiller plays the horrible dark person who lives in some of us in Greenberg, another bitingly funny, well-written Noah Baumbach study of awkward and awful behavior.
Phillip (Chris Messina) and Carol Greenberg (Susan Traylor) appear to have a cluttered but fulfilling life in a cluttered but lovely upper-middle-class home in Los Angeles. For vacation, they are taking the kids to Vietnam and Phillip’s brother is coming to house sit.
Enter the Greenberg who is Greenberg. Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) arrives from New York City with some vague plans to build a dog house for his brother’s family and to just generally do nothing. He has recently left a hospital — you know, “hospital” — and Carol seems to have little hope he’ll do much. While in L.A., he reconnects with a few friends from a time 15 years ago when he was in a band and they were on the crux of Making It. But they have become adults in the intervening years. His former girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh) now has children and only vague memories of her time with Roger. His best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) is going through a difficult time with his own wife and child but Roger’s only real advice seems to be to “be free.”
Roger hasn’t become an adult. He remains desperately unattached and even does his best to push away Florence (Greta Gerwig), Phillip’s assistant whom Roger turns to when things go wrong with house or dog. And when he’s lonely, which he frequently is. So they get together, they have awkward bites of romance and then he picks a fight to leave. Florence is a bit adrift as well, which may be why against advice and common sense she continues to see Roger.
Ricky Gervais, talking about his The Office, has been quoted saying something to the effect of if you don’t know someone like David Brent, you probably are David Brent. Well, if you don’t know a Greenberg, then chances are you are the Greenberg. It’s not a pretty mirror to look at but at least it offers, over real life, the ability to laugh at the destructive id, and not have to live it. Greenberg is the angry teenager still ripping on everything that is lame or hypocritical (though not with a great understanding of what “hypocritical” means). Greenberg does things ironically but has done them so long that the irony has worn off and the goof — addressing his friend as “man” for example — is now his personality. For a certain group of people, Greenberg is a representation of the jaded jerkhead deep inside and the degree to which you can keep him inside is the degree to which you can hold a job/have relationships/what have you. Greenberg can’t keep anything inside and thus has little choice but to concentrate on his plans of doing nothing.
If previous Noah Baumbach movies — 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding — embarrass, horrify or scare you, then maybe Greenberg’s not so much for you. This is a movie that examines, in full light and with hilarious but sharp accuracy, the person who is, well, let’s say, rhymes with “mouchebag.” Baumbach is excellent at taking the truly flamboyant, deep-down schmuck and showing him for all his awfulness and somehow finding a tiny bit of humanity. (Whether it’s a redemptive amount of humanity I think he more or less leaves up to the viewer.) Stiller, never one to shrink at playing the jerk, does a very good job playing this guy. You can dislike him and yet continue to watch him.
The movie saves its unashamed, full-hearted loved and affection for Gerwig, a “regular person” beauty of the type Baumbach seems to prefer. Shots of her are luminous, as though we’re gazing at her. It’s a neat trick that she too can seem flawed — sort of goofy at times, not always good at standing up for herself, indecisive — and yet charming and interesting.
I suspect most people who see Greenberg will either find it kind of endearing in the way that Noah Baumbach comedies tend to be or find it almost intolerable, with not many people falling somewhere in between. B
Rated R for some strong sexuality, drug use and language. Directed by Noah Baumbach and written by Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Greenberg is an hour and 47 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Focus Features.