Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” is frustrating, even depressing at times, but that’s entirely the point.
At the State
Focus Features and Scott Rudin Productions
Striking a delicate balance between comedy and gloom, “Greenberg” follows its namesake, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller, “Night at the Museum”), a 40-year-old carpenter and former musician fresh off a mental breakdown returning to his hometown of Los Angeles. Given the task of watching over his brother’s house while his family goes on vacation, he meets Florence (Greta Gerwig, “Baghead”), the family’s dedicated and trustworthy assistant with whom he strikes up an awkwardly romantic connection.
The film starts off slow, focusing on the confused Florence until Roger interrupts as a dreary, miserable character quick to shield his true emotions from others’ concerns. Hit by despondency over a life ill spent, Roger guards himself by alienating the people close to him. The film becomes an examination of the protagonist’s past failures as Roger shifts from a sense of paralysis to an acceptance of his age.
But Roger’s inability to understand others pushes “Greenberg” into a sloth from which it has trouble escaping. The bland protagonist distances himself from his conflicted past but shows no sign of having moved on. His interactions reveal him to be selfishly hypocritical and bitter, and even as he struggles to relate to the world, his attitudes and actions inspire little sympathy from viewers.
Still, “Greenberg” is a compelling installment in Baumbach’s continuous study of the banal neuroses that cripple relationships. His critical success continues to attract big actors to small films, and “Greenberg” is no exception. While not the collection of familiar faces that previous Baumbach films “The Squid and the Whale” or “Margot at the Wedding” boasted, “Greenberg” succeeds in transcending independent film by casting Stiller and the lovable supporting actor Rhys Ifans (“Hannibal Rising”).
Baumbach’s mastery of writing characters who exhibit true, natural behavior is not lost on a flashy talent like Stiller; rather, his character allows him to explore parts of his skill set otherwise unseen in his customary comedic persona. In one emblematic scene, Roger’s friend Ivan (Ifans) tells him how others criticize his personality, and Roger counters in a manner entirely acquiescent with said criticism. Even when acting oblivious, Stiller shows a subtle, conscious realization underneath his character’s need to hide his feelings. This is a comedy more delicate than the standard Ben Stiller fare, and the funniest moments in “Greenberg” are met as much with frustrating pain as with uncomfortable laughter.
Gerwig, a relative unknown, may see her career catapulted by her performance in “Greenberg,” similar to Jesse Eisenberg’s rise after “The Squid and the Whale.” As Florence, Gerwig skillfully illustrates the transition from youth to adulthood through nuanced emotional variations and a genuine sense of disorientation.
Although Gerwig’s chemistry with Stiller is, at first, hard to swallow, much like Roger’s development, it slowly evolves into a sense of comfort. The interaction between the two conspicuously imperfect characters becomes fascinating as more of Roger’s eccentricities spill out between them.
Baumbach has a complex interaction with his audience and allows viewers to judge the characters by their own standards. By delivering on the promise of honest drama, he illustrates how a character who starts out so bothersome and flawed can become relatable if stripped down and challenged to the core. While honest from start to finish, “Greenberg” exhibits a far more interesting second half than first, and leaves a conflicted aftertaste of renewal.