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Director Noah Baumbach’s latest film
by Jason Blair
GREENBERG: Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Cinematography, Harris Savides. Music, James Murphy. Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Focus Features, 2010. R. 110 minutes.
|Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Ben Stiller in Greenberg.|
How you feel about Greenberg will depend upon how you feel about the title character, Roger Greenberg, which in turn will depend on your opinion of Ben Stiller’s ability to create sympathy for him. In real life, we all know a Greenberg, an irritable pill who mistakes anything old for classic, who craves authenticity but lacks the courage to make the compromises by which adulthood is defined. A Greenberg, if we can use the term generically, is a person who can’t take a joke, a person who insults you as often as not, even as his own life has little to show for it. But they also carry great pain. Like Holden Caulfield or Larry David, Greenberg’s motto is “There’s so much crap out there,” a state of affairs he attempts to remedy by writing angry letters to Starbucks. In its willingness to explore the tension narcissists generate — do we abandon or embrace them? — Greenberg is a mature, committed and even brave film, but it is at times a not entirely watchable one.
At the start of the film, Greenberg returns to Los Angeles 15 years after moving to New York, where he’s recently suffered a nervous breakdown. While his brother and family are on vacation, Greenberg is allowed to stay at their house, where his brother’s assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) occasionally drops by to walk the family dog. Greenberg and Florence strike up a fitful and complicated relationship, something he clearly isn’t ready for. He’s like a caged animal that Florence is drawn to rather than repelled by. Gerwig, who’s been hiding in so-called mumblecore pictures for years, is as easy as running water in Greenberg. Her Florence is a clear, pure marvel. Florence is precisely the kind of catatonically gentle spirit that can tolerate the neurotic Greenberg, who tends to say things that make you want to look into your lap.
Greenberg’s friends from his twenties aren’t really his friends anymore, as one awkward reunion after another demonstrates, with the exception of Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who arguably takes more Greenberg abuse than anyone. Ifans, a Welshman who’s been playing wastrels (Notting Hill) and edgy hepcats (Pirate Radio) for years, is at his sedated best in Greenberg, playing Ivan as a former bad boy who now seems incapable of getting upset. Over and over, you wait for Ivan to slap Greenberg, to at least verbally admonish him for being so unkind. Instead, like a tender counterpart to Florence, Ivan serves as a kind of caretaker to the million little pieces that are Greenberg. When Ivan finally snaps, he raises nothing but a bit of wisdom for his friend: “It’s huge to finally embrace the life you never planned on.” In other words, Greenberg: Get started embracing yours.
Much of Greenberg is cringe-worthy. The movie is formally and technically sophisticated — acclaimed cinematographer Harris Savides manages to make L.A. feel intimate, a feat I thought impossible — particularly in the way it presents Roger Greenberg in near-documentary style. You might note his frayed collar, his addiction to lip balm or the way he cuts his hair one lock at a time; what you won’t notice is excess sentimentality from director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), leaving the act of making Greenberg human and sympathetic a job for Ben Stiller alone. While Stiller has never been more vulnerable, his performance veers towards anger rather than fear, resulting, alas, in a Greenberg that’s perhaps too challenging to care for
Greenberg opens Friday, March 26, at the Bijou.