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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: Greenberg (2010)

* * *

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig

Some matches are made in heaven, others are made... much closer to earth, less a result of cosmic alignment than deciding that it's time to settle, if only temporarily. Although writer/director Noah Baumbach would probably describe it differently, I would summarize Greenberg thusly: a mentally fragile narcissist spends an hour and a half screwing with the head of a somewhat spacey but perfectly nice young woman until both are just so exhausted that they decide that the other will do, at least for now. This isn't a love story - it's too messy, too cringe-inducingly human. Baumbach excels in cinema of the uncomfortable, in characters who behave so badly that you want to look away, but so believably that you feel compelled to keep watching. Greenberg isn't great Baumbach, but it's definitely good Baumbach.

Although named for the failed rock star recently released from a mental hospital and played by Ben Stiller, Greenberg starts with Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), the personal assistant of Greenberg's brother Phillip (Chris Massina). As the film opens, Florence is taking care of the final necessary preparations before Phillip, his wife, and their two children take off for a trip to Vietnam, and is advised by Phillip that his brother, Roger (Stiller), will be staying in the house while they're away and may need her assistance from time to time. Judging by the grocery list Roger prepares for her after they do meet - a list containing two items: ice cream sandwiches and whiskey - he needs a lot of assistance. Roger quickly reconnects with his friend and former bandmate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), and tries to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has become for him a symbol of how his life might have been better had he made better choices. The period of time in which they broke up, and in which his band imploded as a result of him refusing what he thought was a bad record deal, is where he's decided it all went wrong, leading him to a present day in which he has no idea what he's going to do and is telling people that he's purposely trying to "do nothing" for a while. Later in the film Roger tells Florence, "A shrink said to me once that I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because I felt like I never really lived it in the first place." He did live it, though. He just didn't live it in a way that resulted in happiness.

Rebuffed by Beth, Roger clumsily enters into... something with Florence, constantly changing the rules on her so that she's never quite sure where they stand. One minute he seems into her, the next he's telling her that he wants to be dating someone else - anyone else. What Florence sees in Roger that keeps her coming back for more every time he jerks her around is anyone's guess. For that matter, what Ivan gets out of his friendship with Roger that keeps him coming back from more and more abuse is also anyone's guess. While Roger is busy trying to redo the past, and trying to drag Ivan along with him, Ivan is desperately trying to make Roger even the slightest bit interested in his present, which includes a wife (hated by Roger) and son (ignored by Roger) and sobriety. Only Mahler, the Greenberg family dog, seems to stir anything in Roger resembling concern for another being as his health rapidly starts to decline and he's diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. Although Greenberg is more clever than it is laugh out loud funny, there is a hilarious moment when Roger's college-age niece shows up at the house for a night and throws a party and one of her drunken/stoned friends says to Roger, "I'm sorry your dog has AIDS." Of course, this is only funny because the dog is still alive at the end of the movie.

Stiller has spent much of his career, particularly his post-There's Something About Mary career, doing broad comedies, but he's an adept dramatic actor. Roger is a narcissist who can't really see beyond himself and his own needs, at least not for long, but there's a thread of vulnerability and pain woven into that fabric that makes Roger compelling as a character. He behaves badly to those around him, particularly the ones who care most about him, but that behavior doesn't come from nothing; it's rooted in a strong sense of self-loathing that Roger feels for the choices he made when he was younger and thought that his life would be nothing but choices. Now here he is in the present day, completely aimless, his music career dead, the woman he's convinced himself was the love of his life disinterested. He's angry and hurt and wants to drag everyone down with him so that he'll be just as little bit less conspicuous in his unhappiness, a little less left out. There's a lot of nuance in Stiller's performance, which makes Roger human without softening his very rough edges.

Matching Stiller note for note is Gerwig, who plays Florence as, not dim, exactly, but too innocent and lacking in experience for someone with the amount of baggage that Roger brings to the table. Florence is the kind of softly quirky character that you could sculpt an entire film around (which, of course, Baumbach and Gerwig now have with the great Frances Ha), and Greenberg sometimes toys with being about the nice young woman rather than the misanthropic middle aged man. Roger's problems are what ultimately drives the narrative forward, but Florence is our point of entry into the story and the film keeps circling back to her after the protagonist baton has been passed to Roger. It gives the film a nice sense of balance, infusing it with some light when it threatens to go too dark. As I said at the top, Greenberg isn't great Baumbach (although individual parts of it qualify as great), but it's perfectly good Baumbach.

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