A "romantic comedy/drama" featuring depressed and unlikable people is a tough sell. That GREENBERG works to the degree it does is a testament to the good writing and outstanding acting...but it cannot completely overcome the essential problem embedded in its premise. That doesn't mean a movie about unlikable people is a bad idea, but expecting such a film to receive a warm, loving embrace by the audience is a bit of a stretch.
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) a New York based carpenter who once had a shot at rock star glory, is recently out of a mental institution for severe depression. He's now in Hollywood, house-sitting for his brother and family, who are on extended vacation. House-sitting pretty much involves taking care of Mahler, the family German shepherd. And Roger is assisted in this minimal task by Florence (Greta Gerwig), the personal assistant of Roger's brother...she brings him groceries and essentially handles any small tasks Roger might have.
Thus, Roger is allowed to wallow in his self pity. He "engages" himself in the idea of constructing a doghouse for Mahler...and constantly insists that he's doing a great and noble and generous thing by building it. Yet, over the course of what feels like a few weeks, he only gets about halfway done. He is stuck in a malaise of self-hatred...which hatred he shares generously with those around him by being scornful and dismissive. Everyone is a fake or a phony. Everyone is worthy of derision. But when simply arising in the morning is a monumental task, I imagine it would be hard to care much for your fellow man.
Florence, a clearly intelligent young woman who is also adrift in a life going nowhere, would normally be the most depressing character in any other movie, but in comparison to Roger, she is practically sunshine and light. She also suffers from low self-esteem, which has her engaging in a series of one-night stands that leave her clearly unfulfilled and feeling even worse about herself. She and Roger drift into a "sort of" relationship. They come together briefly for a "date," then Roger says or does something awful and the bounce apart. Her friends tell her to leave him alone. His inner-voice makes him wonder why he treats her so badly. He clearly likes something about her (perhaps her openness to feeling, rather than his cutting-off of feeling), but then he acts as though he can't abide her. He's like the kid in elementary school who punches the girl he really likes, to show how immune to liking a girl he is.
Stiller also reaches out to his old bandmates, particularly Ivan (Rhys Ifans)...these men were once his friends, but years ago, with a record contract on the table, Greenberg apparently scuttled the whole deal and the band fell apart. This has bred enormous resentments between the men. Ivan, a good man struggling to hold his family together, seems genuinely interested in befriending Greenberg. He seems to feel responsible for providing some companionship, however strained, to this lost soul. But Greenberg can't stop picking away at the man, mocking his choice of a marriage partner and generally belittling him.
What is convincing about GREENBERG is that no one has a sudden flash of redemption. The script hews closely to what "real life" would be like...if these characters DO make any progress, it will be tentative and painfully slow. Most of the time, it's one step forward, two steps back. The best we can hope for is to see the dynamic shift to two steps forward and one step back.
This makes it very hard to warm up to the characters. They are fascinating and involving, but throughout viewing this, I was constantly telling myself, "These are awful people. I could care less what happens to them." This was particularly true for Greenberg. I felt sorry but frustrated for Florence...but Roger Greenberg needed a good smack upside the head.
That the movie is enjoyable at all is due to some sharp writing, including the use of the dog Mahler as the vehicle through which Roger and Florence can tentatively bond. Their concern for the dog gives them excuses to come together, even when angry at each other. Further, the excellent work from Stiller and Gerwig elevates the film. These two interesting actors give themselves completely over to their work, and it's very effective. Gerwig is not someone I've noticed before, but she is vulnerable and assured in her work. I'd like to see her now tackle a less trouble character; I suspect there's an effervescent personality there. And Stiller has always had a dark side, even in his most "family friendly" characters; but here he just gives himself over completely to that darkness. I hope like heck he isn't really like this...but he sure plays it convincingly. And Rhys Ifans gives another outstanding performance. He's quiet and contained, so that when his inevitable outpouring of feeling comes, the impact is all the greater.
I encourage adult movie-goers who enjoy tight writing and good acting to check out GREENBERG. If you're looking for a "happy" time at the movies, though...look elsewhere.
*** out of **** Noah Baumbach knows a lot about the truths hidden beneath human nature. He seems to know how to reach his audience through his understanding of humanity. As he demonstrated in "The Squid and the Whale", and now in the somewhat inferior "Greenberg", Baumbach hopes to strike that certain emotional chord in us all. And by golly, the man has done it again. While I didn't like "Greenberg" as much as I liked "The Squid and the Whale", Baumbach's latest is as deep … more
Roger Greenberg, an anxious and unsettled middle-aged man from New York City, is house and dog sitting for his older brother in L.A. He meets up with Florence, her brother's beautiful but insecure personal assistant, and calls awkwardly upon old friends with whom he has a checkered past. They get together, but he's prone to self-sabotage and is not an easy man to be with. The film is intrigued by him, but perhaps more intriguing is Florence, and the most serious question that … more
GREENBERG Written and directed by Noah Baumbach Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh Florence: Hurt people hurt people. Noah Baumbach, the Oscar-nominated writer and director of The Squid and the Whale, has a knack for creating characters that are troubled and difficult to be around. His fascination with giving a voice to those no one wants to hear, shows his immense sympathy as a writer … more
Don't go into this one thinking you'll get the usual Ben Stiller gig - it's him, and it's recognizable as an extreme variation on the character types he normally plays, but this is really a Noah Baumbach film. Beautifully filmed, excellent acting - especially by Greta Gerwig -and an intriguing character study. I liked it a lot - but I expect some will hate it.
Greenbergaims to recapture the raw flavor and psychological acuity of 1970s character portraits likeFive Easy Pieces--but the character in question is completely of the moment. Neurotic and anxious Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) comes to L.A. to stay in his brother's house, where he reconnects with old bandmates and falls, with painful awkwardness, into a relationship with his brother's personal assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig, sweetheart of the "mumblecore" movement). But this movie is not about plot--it's about human frailty and finding a moral or spiritual significance in caring for a dog or driving someone on an errand. Stiller sheds his usual bag of twitchy tricks and conveys the brittle spirit of a man defeated by his own intelligence. Gerwig has an odd, hapless charm; she makes aimlessness appealing. As a romance, the movie falters--while it's obvious why Roger would be attracted to Florence's youth and vulnerability, it's less clear why Florence wouldn't be repelled by Roger's sometimes-cruel instability. But writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) has gotten even better at capturing the history of two people with brief, incisive strokes; Roger's prickly history with his friends becomes vividly clear in a few conversations. As a core sampling of the contemporary psyche,Greenbergis rewarding. Also featuring excellent performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh (eXistenZ) and Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill).--Bret ...