Dir: Noah Baumbach, 2010. Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rhys Ifans. Comedy.
Some movies merit a second viewing to get a better sense of what’s going on. There aren’t a lot of films I’d lump into this category but Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is one of them. When I saw it during its original theatrical release I thought it fell flat. I was expecting a sharp-as-a-blade deconstruction of the kind of guy who, in Baumbach’s own words, seems to perpetually get in his own way. Ben Stiller’s character, Roger Greenberg, is a hyper-critical, excruciatingly self-centered guy aimless and adrift in a Los Angeles completely familiar to anyone who lives here—a place that seems to always have the lonely haze of a Sunday afternoon. Greenberg is a quintessential 21st century miserablist. None of his problems should chart on a list of the biggest issues facing society but in his own way he epitomizes the neurotic, existential crisis surrounding a particular stratum of our white western culture of insane privilege. Greenberg is paralyzed by how his actions make him seem to the outside world. He is obsessed with what people say about him. He is so busy avoiding the things he doesn’t want to do that he ends up not really doing anything with his life. He takes out his anger on justifiable targets—Starbucks, rude drivers—but lacks the self-awareness to see where all this self-obsessive behavior has gotten him. If this sounds unpleasant I assure you it’s actually pretty hilarious but the subtlety of Stiller’s performance caught me off guard the first time.

Roger Greenberg is a New Yorker in his 40s who has just gotten over some kind of vaguely alluded to nervous breakdown. He is offered his brother Phillip’s palatial house in L.A. to recuperate in while Phillip and his family are off in Vietnam on a work-related trip. Greenberg (as Stiller’s character is known) shows up after they leave and meets their personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who agrees to get a drink with him. Their banter is suitably awkward. Greenberg often wears the expression of a trapped animal; his eyes dart around and he doesn’t so much engage in conversation as let you in on what one assumes is his constant, torturous inner monologue: a litany of complaints and contrarian opinions on every subject conceivable. Somehow this charms Florence or at least piques her curiosity. She’s a girl just out of college who is sleepwalking through young adulthood, a nice kid who doesn’t have her shit together and for whatever reason likes Greenberg. Greenberg, though, has a habit of letting people who care about him down. Whether it’s Florence or his former band mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), he can’t seem to move beyond his own baggage and he inevitably hurts the people closest to him. Misery, after all, loves company.

But Greenberg isn’t a total wet blanket. He’s actually really funny. If his ire isn’t directed at you it’s pretty amusing to hear him rant. And it’s telling that his friends are people who are much gentler than he is. Greenberg types can’t stand other Greenbergs. Not everyone is still charmed by him, though, and he strikes out when he tries to reconnect with an old flame (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who wisely sees the idea of getting back together with him for the big red flag that it is.

The film had me until the end when the future looks inexplicably promising for Greenberg and Florence. It’s a nice idea but I don’t think the redemption arc suits the character. Can Greenberg really change? Is it worth Florence sticking around to find out? He’s an interesting guy but he might be a phase one should realistically grow out of. Maybe that’s what’s so sad about him. Regardless, the film has many charms not least of which is the evocation of L.A. as a wonderland full of grime and beauty and absurdist touches like Gower Gulch and those inflatable stick men that whip around the used car lots of Hollywood. It’s another great film from Noah Baumbach even if it took two viewings to really appreciate.
Posted by:
Jed Leland
Feb 29, 2012 6:19pm
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