Movie Review: Greenberg
Roger Greenberg might be the most unlikable protagonist in film history. He seems to have a problem with everything and prides himself on writing complaint letters, but he never uses his supposed knowledge and expertise to make any sort of worthwhile contribution to society. Hey, that kind of sounds like a film critic… but I digress.
The new movie from writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) is a virtually plotless character study of a 40-year-old man, fresh out of a mental hospital, who returns to Los Angeles for a visit after spending several years in New York. We watch as Greenberg (Ben Stiller) wanders about, trying to reconnect with his former band mates and an old flame, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (who co-wrote the story with Baumbach). Baumbach’s swerving camera and irregular cutting do a great job of capturing Greenberg’s anxieties during a couple of particularly uncomfortable party scenes.
It’s essentially a series of often funny anecdotes with no regard for time, the meatiest of which involve a sudden romantic spark between Greenberg and his brother’s college-aged personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig). The two share an enjoyably awkward attraction that never seems to progress in the way we expect. That’s usually because Greenberg is so socially inept that anytime he has a chance to say something nice, he manages to say the exact opposite.
The movie looked like it was going to be a massive departure for Stiller into more dramatic fare, but that’s not entirely the case. His Greenberg character shares the same neurotic and spastic tendencies he exhibited in movies like Along Came Polly and The Heartbreak Kid. It’s just a little more subdued this time around. It’s also funnier.
Ultimately, though, the Stiller vehicle gets hijacked and transformed into a showcase for the beautiful and talented newcomer, Greta Gerwig. She announces her arrival with a performance that is heartfelt and hilarious. Expect big things from her in the future. Rhys Ifans also has some stellar scenes as Greenberg’s long-lost best friend, whose personal puzzle is much closer to being put together.
Despite its incredibly unlikable lead character, Greenberg really does have a lot to say. At times it just feels like it is offering lessons we have either heard before or can figure out on our own. Roger Greenberg uses his anxieties as a crutch, an excuse to deprive himself of life’s finest joys. I’m not so sure I needed to watch Greenberg to figure out that this type of thinking will eventually lead to a miserable existence.
Roger Greenberg is a man who is decidedly “doing nothing deliberately.” That’s probably the best way to describe the film as well. Greenberg accomplishes very little and is anything but a fulfilling movie-going experience. This could easily make the movie a waste of time, but it’s just so much fun to watch along the way.
RIYL: Annie Hall, The Squid and the Whale, Garden State.