A film review by Craig J. Koban May 17, 2010

Rank:  #8


2010, R, 107 mins.


Roger Greenberg: Ben Stiller / Florence: Greta Gerwig / Ivan: Rhys Ifans / Beth: Jennifer Jason / Leigh / Sara: Brie Larson / Eric: Mark Duplass

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach 

Writer/director Noah Baumbach is, if anything, one of the shrewdest observational dramatists working in contemporary films.  What he does is not easy: he is able to effortlessly blend powerfully (and oftentimes brutally) honest dramatic sentiment and dark comedic laughs with a delicate, understated pathos.   He creates utterly convincing portraits of everyday people suffering from long and protracted tumbles into emotional abysses, but he also does so with a curious warmth and objective understanding.  Most crucially, he asks viewers not to like his characters, but to try to see things through their warped prerogatives.

If you doubt his skills just look at his 2005 Oscar nominated THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (one of my Ten Best Films of that year) which was a semi-autobiographical dramedy about his childhood in Brooklyn and the effect of his parent’s divorce in the 1980’s (Baumbach's parents are novelist/film critic Jonathon Baumbach and Village Voice critic Georgia Brown).  Then came 2007’s MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, a lesser film to SQUID, but almost its equal when it came to having a documentarian feel for the foibles and flaws of its personas.  Both of those films revel in Baumbach’s keen focus on going completely against audience expectations for the underling material: the way he uncompromisingly portrays his characters keeps viewers off balance, which makes his films so intoxicating. 

Now comes GREENBERG, which is another Baumbach small scale, character study masterpiece of middle class unease and overall discomfort.  Some filmmakers like to focus on the emotional microcosms of their deeply flawed characters, but Baumbach has a borderline fetishistic obsession with picking apart his personas when they are at their most grounded and vulnerable.  The central title character, Robert Greenberg (played in a pitch-perfectly under cranked and disciplined performance by Ben Stiller) is a man in his early 40’s that is a cantankerous asshole mostly because…well…he perhaps does not know how else to behave.

He’s single, monstrously anti-social, intrinsically unlikable to his core, and spends most of the film in an excruciatingly ego-driven freefall.  He is infatuated with the gripes that he fanatically believes the entire world around him has against him, even when they don’t appear very readily.  Part of the brilliance of GREENBERG is that Baumbach and Stiller so swiftly (a) make us detest this arrogant and self-centered man and (b) make us eventually foster a modest level of understanding for what makes him tick.  The writing, direction, and empowered performance don’t soft-pedal the character for easy payoffs; instead, they all work in tandem in an effort to make us understand him without directly liking him.  The film, true to Baumbach’s playbook, never once cleanses Greenberg for the sake of more easily inspiring our sympathy for him.  Much like the character himself, we struggle alongside him.

Instead of focusing on the upper class and affluent Manhattan environment of THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, Baumbach opts here to place the film in Los Angeles, a location that, according to Greenberg, has people that behave in ways that never cease to anger and frustrate him.  After being hospitalized in a psyche ward for reasons never specified (the film tantalizes us with filling in the blanks), Greenberg finds himself jobless, homeless, and without much of a future.  Years before when he was in his twenties he was an aspiring musician with an old buddy, Ivan (Rhys Ifans, hitting every comic and dramatic beat with textbook precision), that is until Greenberg – with a the-entire-world-is-out-to-screw-him attitude of vanity gone amok – made a stupid and naïve decision to call off a proposed record deal that could have set his band up for life.  Just about everyone around Greenberg believes that he ruined their musical pursuits, but he doesn’t.   

Fed up with life in the present, but without much in the ways of goals to propel himself forward, Greenberg decides to do “nothing for awhile” while he house-sits for his rich brother in the City of Angels.  The brother hopes that Greenberg will look after the house, the dog, and maybe build a house for the animal (he sometimes dabbles in carpentry when he is not writing scathing letters of spite to corporations for doing…well…everything wrong while servicing his needs).  When not wallowing away in a pool of his own self-pity, Greenberg does try to reacquaint himself with Ivan, whom is going through a nasty divorce with his wife, and an estranged old girlfriend named Bath (Jennifer Jason Leigh, wife to Baumbach and co-credited with the film’s story). 

Greenberg then has a chance encounter with his brother’s personal family assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig, in a breakout performance if there ever was one), who decides to drop by the house to see if the dog and home are okay and to see if Greenberg is in need of anything.  Typical of Baumbach’s willingness to never, ever play things predictably, Greenberg and Florence have sort of an anti-meet-cute: they don’t seem to have any spark or romantic feelings towards one another, but they seem to be mutually interested in the other.   

The two begin to see more of each other, but there never seems to be much of a sexual attraction between the pair…. just curiosity as to what makes each other tick.  Greenberg is so lovesick with his own misery that he finds it next-to-impossible to discover romantic feelings for Florence.  She is almost equally complicated as a possible love interest: During one of the film’s most razor sharp and funny sequences, the pair begin to have intercourse in one of the most awkward sex scenes in long time.  He seems oddly detached from his duties to please her while she seems equally distracted by noises outside the apartment.   When they stop she reveals to him that she does not want another boyfriend because she just broke up with someone: “I don’t want to go from just having sex to sex to sex.”  The hilariously paranoid Greenberg asks, “Who’s the third sex?” 

I don’t wish to spoil more of what happens to their very peculiar relationship, other than to say that Baumbach’s fly-on-the wall spontaneity with the camera and his meticulous knack for capture the idiosyncrasies of everyday conversation is what makes Greenberg and Florence one of the more intriguing on-screen couples in a while.  What’s amazing is how the film lures you in even when the title character appears to have no redeeming qualities.  The relationship between Greenberg and Florence is more like one of two hopelessly lost souls than it is one of traditional love-conquers-all sentiment.  Their initial hook-ups are failures, then they decide to leave each other alone, only to hook back up again and the cycle repeats itself.  The more the film progresses the more it appears that these two people maybe don’t belong together.  Florence is so sunny in disposition, disarming, and plucky that you kind of want to slap some sense into her for wanting to be with a vile jerk that finds himself complaining more about how she takes him away from his own bottomless apathy.  A more traditional approach for a romcom would be to see that pair overcoming their respective differences to simplistically love each other, but under Baumbach’s bleak microscope, the lives of his characters are not so black and white. 

That is not to say that Florence is perfectly well adjusted either: she wants to have a life of fulfillment and happiness, even though her current lifestyle and lack of ambition seem to hold her back.  She seems limitlessly confident, yet paradoxically unsure of herself at the same time.  The performance by Greta Gerwig – a star in the making – is one of 2010’s most naturalistic and nuanced: what’s so compelling about the actress is that she does not possess movie star glamour, but she is nonetheless sneakily beautiful if you look close enough.  She is also a finely skilled actress for shedding away any pretence of method or gimmicks in perfectly capturing a 25-year-old woman at her most enthusiastic and troubled.  There is not one false note made by Gerwig here.   

Perhaps most amazing is Stiller’s shocking transformation into Greenberg, where the actor’s usual comedic shtick (albeit rousingly funny in other Hollywood comedies) is totally discarded in place of him completely committing himself to playing a totally unsettled, unnerving, and fixatedly angry human being.  Baumbach has a past of taken unhinged comic performers and carving out nicely understated performances from them that traverse between tragedy and laughs (see Jake Black in MARGOT AT THE MUSEUM) and he does much of the same with Stiller here.  Credit, though, needs to go the actor for the way he never reduces Greenberg to a one-note caricature nor does he make him an overly crude symbol of condemnation.  Stiller makes Greenberg one of his memorable creations because he makes the character an open vessel to the audience: he’s an insufferable SOB, an intellectual elitist, and a mentally sick man and the performance and script never sugarcoats him in ways you would expect. 

Two scenes in particular are small masterpieces and show why Stiller definitively should be a front-runner for Oscar gold:  In one protracted and painful-to-watch moment we see the pathetic Greenberg try to re-establish a bond with his ex-girlfriend that has long since went on to better things (Baumbach slowly builds the scene until Greenberg’s feeble attempts at wooing her becomes squirm-inducing).  The second scene – a maniacal comic classic – shows a drunken, coked-up Greenberg at a house party filled with teens and young twenty-somethings where he unleashes a self-aggrandizing monologue about how their generation confounds him.  Stiller has never been as eerily convincing. 

People often ask me why I am so enamored by films about wholeheartedly crummy people.  Fascinatingly, GREENBERG never panders down to its crummy character by trying to find ways to force us to like him.  The film wants us to witness and observe the character’s highs and lows through his own twisted social vacuum.  As a result, GREENBERG is an enthrallingly welcoming film about a most unwelcome character, and it sort of sucker punches you out of the doldrums of witless formulas and mechanical story contrivances that seem to hover over other archaic and lackluster dramedies.  Once again, Baumbach shows that he is a filmmaker that likes to spit on mechanical movie conventions and he never pulls dramatic punches while doing so to placate audiences. 

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