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Malaise Loves Company: A Review of Greenberg

March 24, 2010

Ben Stiller is the willfully miserable Roger Greenberg in Greenberg, Noah Baumbach's latest.

Newly arrived in Los Angeles, and still recovering from a stay of indeterminate duration at a mental hospital back East, Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is celebrating his 41st birthday at a restaurant with his long-time (and long-suffering) friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), and his short-time (but just as suffering) girlfriend Florence (Greta Gerwig). When a group of waiters swarms the table with a candle-topped bowl of ice cream singing “Happy Birthday,” Greenberg shakes his head and curses Ivan for his sneak attack. Before they can finish the song, he blows out the candle. The cursing continues. On the drive home with Florence, he defends his behavior: “I’m not one of those preening L.A. people who wants everything to be about them.” No, instead he’s one of those self-loathing New York people who can’t imagine a world where everything isn’t about them. Which is a long way of saying: this must be a Noah Baumbach movie.

Greenberg, the latest comic drama from writer-director Baumbach, features the kind of male antihero we’ve come to expect from the minstrel of comic miserabilism: Roger Greenberg is a neurotic, narcissistic manchild, whose talent for indiscriminate cruelty is matched only by his limitless capacity for self-delusion. Most damning of all, he’s a backseat driver.

Greenberg is a former musician of promise, now a carpenter, who is staying at his wealthy brother’s house while his brother’s family takes an extended trip to Vietnam. He spends his days walking the dog, building a doghouse and writing letters to corporate giants to voice his displeasure about the unavoidable inconveniences of modern life. Otherwise, his only goal is, as he says, “to do nothing.”

But this being a Baumbach film, there needs to be a low self-esteem, high-character woman to puncture the protagonist’s cocoon of self-absorption. Enter Florence, Greenberg’s brother’s personal assistant, a winsome 25-year-old hipster.

What makes Greenberg work is the unlikely chemistry between Stiller and Gerwig. This isn’t a new Stiller by any means, bur rather a rawer, angrier version of the trademark Stiller schlub, photographed to emphasize his diminutive height. Stiller’s impeccable sense of comic timing is intact, but Greenberg’s awareness of it is both arrogant and pathetic. “I’m weirdly on tonight,” he says after a particularly clever wisecrack. This is a Stiller we want to smack, not hug.

Gerwig’s Florence is in many ways his polar opposite. In her fragile, occasionally slurry monotone, she admits she should read more. Her posture is a mess, and she has a small pouch in her belly. But her smile is effervescent, whether it’s an invitation to friendship or an apology for an overly personal confession. And her eyes are wide with the kindness of innocence. “If you worked in an office with her, you’d definitely develop a crush on her,” says Greenberg. “But outside of the office, you’d start to wonder if she’s as cute as you imagined.” In short, she looks, sounds and acts like a real woman, the rarest of creatures in Hollywood’s menagerie of magical creations.

On paper, there is no reason why this kind-hearted young woman should be attracted to a caustic middle-aged loser. But I bought it. They are both, in very different ways, extraordinarily vulnerable. Their attraction is that of two damaged souls hungering for an anchor (whether that grounds them or sinks them is the open question).

While Greenberg confesses his deepest doubts and disappointments to Florence, he responds with revulsion whenever her vulnerability goes too far. This is a script we suspect he has played many times before. Instead, Greenberg tries meekly to pursue a more suitable match in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Beth, a divorced 38-year-old single mom he dated 15 years earlier. He attempts to connect over shared anecdotes from the mid-‘90s, but she doesn’t remember any of it. Greenberg has the uncanny recall for the past that is common among those who live in mortal fear of the future.

The dominant theme, as with most Baumbach films, is the great crushing feeling that comes when one realizes that one’s post-college reality will never match one’s senior-year dreams. For anyone who’s ever been less than proud of his current profession (which is to say, everyone), Greenberg nails the discomfort produced by the question, “So. What do you do?”

Greenberg’s malaise is the deepest, but no one over 21 is immune. In ways both sweet and degrading, Florence seeks refuge in romantic attraction, while Ivan, a recently separated dad with a history of addiction, is clearly a fellow traveler. The only characters unaffected are the college-age bacchanalians who stuff Greenberg with drugs in the film’s climactic house party.

Baumbach’s funniest film since his first, Kicking and Screaming, Greenberg demonstrates his ample talents for mining masculine self-delusion for comic potential. What separates this film from Baumbach’s more recent features is his willingness to offer his characters glimpses of grace. One gets the sense that these characters aren’t predestined to a life of misery (as the dysfunctional family in The Squid and the Whale was), but that Baumbach has granted them enough autonomy that they may just find peace of mind. Through the thick haze of narcissism, even Greenberg has his moments of decency.

Perhaps inevitably for a film about a character seeking to “do nothing,” Greenberg strains a little too hard for catharsis and transformation on its way to denouement. But the final scene offers—or rather implies—a small but strangely moving moment of authentic human connection via voicemail. In a Baumbach film, that practically counts as a ride into the sunset.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Adam Marks permalink
    May 17, 2010 3:24 pm

    I feel better about it now after reading your review. I was hoping to laugh more with this one but I should have known better. I was looking for a little bit more background from Stiller. I wanted to know more about the time between the record deal and now, what happened and why. But I guess that’s part of the charm. Speaking of charm, the daughter (the one who drove the SUV to the airport) was kinda hot.

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