In his forties and without life direction, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) jumps at the chance to move out to Los Angeles to housesit for his younger, successful brother, Phillip (Chris Messina). Things start to look up for the mentally damaged Roger when he meets Phillip’s pretty assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who will prove a kindred spirit to the lonely “Greenberg.”
Jennifer Jason Leigh wrote the story and director Noah Baumbach the screenplay of a man, Roger, in the midst of a mid-life crisis - that has been going on for 15 years. Once the member of a band that almost had a recording contract – Roger screwed up and lost it – he has had some rough times with his head. Institutionalized for a while, he stopped playing music, moved to NYC and became a carpenter. When Phillip asks him to housesit, Roger sees it as the perfect opportunity to “do nothing.”
When he spots pretty Florence, he begins an on again off again relationship with her. On when he wants her, off when he rejects her because he is “trying not to hurt her,” which he does anyway. This becomes a psychological roller coaster ride for Roger and Florence (and me) as he searches for the answer to whom he really is.
Not quite on par with Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg” is, still, a well-made, well-written and well-acted film that shows the director/writer’s true talent. Ben Stiller plays it straight (with a bit of humor, of course) as the psychologically challenged Roger and shows on his face the battles going on within hid head. It is a new dimension for the comedic actor. Greta Gerwig, as Florence, starts out seeming a bit immature and naïve but develops a sweetness that is charming and endearing. She does not know what she wants but there is something there with Roger – if he does not screw it up with his mixed, frequently changing messages.
Jason-Leigh and Baumbach have conceived and brought to life a pair of character studies about two damaged people that, over a bumpy emotional road, find each other – to a very satisfying end. I give it a B+.
Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig, "Baghead") makes a scattered L.A. living as a personal assistant to the family of a hotel executive. When they take an extended trip to Vietnam, Florence's boss Phillip (Chris Messina, "Julie & Julia") tells her that his brother, a New York City carpenter who just got out of a mental hospital, will be staying in their home and may call her if he needs things. That first telephone call Florence gets starts the beginning of an emotional roller coaster ride courtesy of the self-centered, self-loathing "Greenberg."
Writer/director Noah Baumbach, who concocted Greenberg with wife Jennifer Jason Leigh (she plays Greenberg's ex-girlfriend Beth), is the king of prickly New Yorkers. Here, he's created one from West Coast cloth only to rip him out of New York and tie him back to L.A. Greenberg, who does not drive, is a fish out of water along the lines of Woody Allen in "Annie Hall," but one who also has disconnected from the artistic and entrepreneurial circles he once ran in. Ben Stiller uses his rather large cranium to host his character's immense ego like a sun he believes all others orbit.
Greenberg's isolation in his brother's house is a metaphor for his emotional state. He awakens to sounds of people outside and lurks around the windows observing a couple in his brother's pool. Reassured that they have been given access, he remains spooked whenever they appear. He calls his best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans, "Pirate Radio"), then suggests they stay in and watch old DVDs. Ivan gets the reluctant Greenberg out to mutual friend Eric's (Mark Duplass, "Humpday") barbecue, where we learn that the trio had once been a promising band and that Greenberg had scotched a recording deal. Eric is still resentful, although has become successful, unlike Ivan who fixes PCs. Greenberg suggests to Beth that they meet up, but eventually ends up stranded when interest in him dries up.
There are three major relationships that Baumbach follows to define Greenberg - his friendship with Ivan, his budding romance with the much younger Florence and his responsibility for Mahler, his brother's German Shepherd. Each has an arc that allows us to learn a lot, both good and bad, about the man who ties them together. Ivan, a tolerant friend if ever there was one, gets his say when Greenberg asks him what others say behind his back. Greenberg dismisses all of it as he continues to prove the truth of Ivan's words. Florence is as unstable an adult as he, drifting into one night stands and maintaining herself through other peoples' lives. She 'admires' Greenberg's ability to state that he is concentrating on doing nothing for the time being. He continues to pull her forward, then push her away, as he pipe dreams about reconnecting with Beth, his lover at what he didn't realize was the biggest moment to realize his potential. Mahler, who begins to show symptoms of a serious disorder, shows Greenberg's potential to actually care for another being.
Greenberg is far from a likable character. He rails against everything, writing letters to every company he comes into contact with to complain, commenting on other people's behavior in public. Stiller plays Greenberg like a deer frozen by the headlights of approaching life, an unfulfilled ego looking for validation. He's terrific in the role, maintaining some level of sympathy even when Ivan, the film's nicest character, loses his. The film's third act turning point, a massive party thrown by a step-niece returning to the homestead before taking off for Australia, is a symphony of Greenberg tics as he tries to 'relate' to the newly emerging generation ('You're all ADD and carpal') and is viewed as both obsessive nerd (he can't stop talking about the Coke he's just ingested) and hilarious party favor. When he's made an offer by Sara (Brie Larson, SHOtime's "United States of Tara") to join her and her friend Muriel (Juno Temple, "Year One"), he jumps, hoping to find what he destroyed in himself at that age, but once the decision has been made, he panics (Baumbach, his star and cinematographer Harris Savides achieve the visual equivalent of an anxiety attack in the back seat of a car), and, in so doing, takes a step into the future instead of the past.
Stiller is ably supported by mumblecore queen Gerwig in what's sure to be a breakout role. She's so natural in her own awkwardness, she's endearing and utterly real. Ifans' performance is so subtle, that when he finally speaks out against his friend, we suddenly realize just how slyly he's built a man with his own separate life. The film also includes turns by Merritt Wever (SHOtime's "Nurse Jackie") as Florence's best friend Gina and James Franco's little bro' Dave as partygoer Rich.
Baumbach's character observations and dialogue are rich throughout. Watch how Greenberg shows one of his only moments of peace while hanging a picture for Florence, or listen to years of resentment and self justification between brothers during a trans-Pacific phone call. Greenberg is a guy we've all known, and, perhaps, can recognize parts of ourselves in.
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