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Greenberg

(No longer in theaters)
  • Rating: R — for some strong sexuality, drug use, and language
  • Director: Noah Baumbach   Cast: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Messina
  • Running Time: 107 minutes
  • Reader Rating: Write a Review

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Genre

Comedy, Drama

Producer

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Rudin

Distributor

Focus Features

Release Date

Mar 19, 2010

Release Notes

NY/LA

Official Website

Review

In the nineties, with his messy but spirited psycho-comedies Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, Noah Baumbach seemed on his way to becoming a new-style American farceur, a Feydeau for a generation stunted and bollixed-up by morbid self-attention. But with his semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach slammed on the brakes. He embraced the aesthetic of cringe. Unpleasant encounters that might have been glancing in his earlier films were stretched out to make you squirm. Characters had enough rope to hang not just themselves but their whole petty, dysfunctional families. In Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach used real time as a cudgel to punish his nasty little people—especially a mother (a brittle Nicole Kidman) whose narcissism left her clingy son bereft. In his latest film, Greenberg, he pushes the parents offscreen and moves the damaged son, the stunted man-child, to the center. He’s Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a fortyish, unemployed New York carpenter who arrives in L.A. to house-sit for his wealthy older brother and also take care of the family dog, Mahler. The absence of Monster Mom and Monster Dad gives the movie a bit more air than Margot, and so does the move to the West Coast, where the characters have more stuff—furniture, swimming pools, cars, drugs—to take their minds off how much they hate themselves and everyone else. The film has many grace notes, and Baumbach and his cinematographer, Harris Savides, create layers of space to suggest a world in which people’s orbits don’t have to intersect. But the pall over Greenberg is as inevitable as the smog in the opening shots, each scene building to a wincer. There’s nothing to do except wait for the protagonist to appall you one more time.

As Greenberg, Stiller wears an expression I’ve never seen on an actor who wasn’t playing a serial killer. People reading ghost stories put flashlights under their chins to create an aspect of malevolence that Stiller has in normal light. The question is not what’s eating Greenberg but what isn’t? He’s prickly and paranoid, an injustice collector who writes long letters to various companies to avenge small slights. We know he has been hospitalized for depression; we can sympathize with his annoyance when a noisy family with permission to use his brother’s pool invades the blessed silence. Stiller is the star, and we can overlook almost anything—until he drunkenly begins to paw his brother and sister-in-law’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), a bright, lovely young woman barely holding her own life together. Greenberg grabs her with no preamble, no romantic badinage, no smile—just a kind of caveman sense of entitlement. And she doesn’t slug him. She has so little self-worth that she thinks he’s relationship material.

It’s likely that Baumbach and Stiller think scenes like that are a mark of integrity, of an imperative to flout the Hollywood laws of likability. But even twisted freaks—especially twisted freaks—need stature, something that transcends an individual’s jerkiness and strikes a larger chord. Greenberg? I don’t think so. The movie has the vague outlines of a formula romance (or screwball comedy) in which a prig learns to loosen up and care for someone else, but Baumbach scores points off his protagonist in a way that’s almost pathological, like people who hate themselves so much that they have to be the first (and loudest) to point it out. Florence tells Greenberg, “Hurt people hurt people”—and disfigured artists disfigure their art. Greenberg is so damaged (by parents?) that even his supposed awakening reeks of childish egotism.

On their own terms and removed from their scaffolding, some scenes in Greenberg are brilliantly discomfiting. Greenberg’s meet-ups with Rhys Ifan as the ex-bandmate he once let down by walking away from a recording contract are droopy, awkward marvels. When Greenberg finds himself at a party with people twenty years his junior, his escalating (drug-fueled) anger at being middle-aged and left behind has a frightening edge, and the kids’ reaction—embarrassment, amused contempt—is just right. Baumbach’s wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, co-wrote the story and has a too-brief role as Greenberg’s ex-girlfriend. (It would be terrible if Leigh, whose acting was diminished by self-consciousness in the nineties, should disappear from screens at the moment she has recovered her equilibrium.) Leigh must have had a hand in the shaping of Florence, which Gerwig made her own. With her slightly abstracted air, she makes sense of the character by finding her music. Early on, when Florence is running errands, Gerwig almost sings her lines, the melody keeping her buoyed up, carrying her through the small indignities of servitude. Later, enduring a fusillade of passive-aggressive abuse, she clings to whatever tiny musical motif she can summon to keep craziness at bay. Greenberg would be a heckuva movie if we could just get Greenberg out of there.

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