“Greenberg,” Noah Bombach’s sixth full-length offering, introduces us to Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, a 30-something former rocker whose band almost got a record deal some 15 years ago.
He has returned to his hometown of Los Angeles from New York, fresh out of the loony bin following an anxious meltdown, in order to take care of his rich and successful brother’s home whilst the brother and his family vacation in Vietnam.
Greenberg is a carpenter “for money” but has otherwise resolved to “do nothing” with his life, which is the one task, outside of writing poignant letters of customer dissatisfaction, that he takes seriously. These letters really embody Greenberg’s entire being; he doesn’t care enough about life to do really anything, yet he pours hours of energy into the composition and editing of these outwardly critical letters which, in lieu of actual friends, act as outlets for him to vent his frustration and anger.
While the majority of people will find Greenberg impossible to relate to, much less like, they will without doubt get an intimate sense of the dissonance that surrounds him, and realize that while Greenberg is extremely abrasive, he is not this way on purpose.
Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg in Noah Bombach’s “Greenberg.”
He doesn’t have to go it alone. There to lend him a hand is his brother’s personal assistant Florence Marr, brought to life by Greta Gerwig. The two begin a horrendously painfully awkward (enough to justify the superfluous modifier) association with each other, which is at first touching due to the vulnerability present in both characters, but conversely irritating as the pressure of the pair’s respective unendurably neurotic tendencies erupts again and again. They are incurably awkward, and concurrently perfect and horrible for each other.
Of equal or greater importance in the film is Greenberg’s relationship with Ivan, his former band-mate portrayed by Rhys Ifans. Ivan represents what Greenberg fears or rejects, which is, at least in Greenberg’s eyes, finally selling out and accepting the wife and kids, white-picket-fence life. Ivan, a former addict and probably the most enlightened character in the film, is torn between his friendship with Greenberg and his other relationships. His desire to reunite with his wife, whom Greenberg hates (actually the feeling is mutual), leaves him in the same boat as Greenberg, the only difference being that Ivan actually has the will power and maturity to actually make the decision.
I’ll start off by saying this is not the type of film I’m usually excited to see. I was unsure what to expect, but my impressions taken from the trailer could not have been more far off. This is not the date night romantic comedy that I was expecting. The most interesting thing about the film is the degree to which everything appears real. The acting throughout the film is all great. Anyone worried about Ben Stiller’s ability to pull off a “more serious” role may rest easy.
Honestly, it isn’t that this type of character is really that far a stretch for him, but the tone and depth of the film are a far cry from others in the Stiller canon. There is a much more genuine sense of helpless desperation in him that seems to come from a deeper place than anything conveyed in his previous work. Gerwig is fantastic, again, playing a character that is hard to like. Florence is a person who knows she is doing wrong but acts like she can’t avoid it. She means well, but is just too predisposed to destructive relationships.
However, while I wince at lines such as “do you think you could learn to love me enough to stay with me?” it is not because it is poorly acted, on the contrary, I buy her character hook line and sinker. It’s her, not the script.
There are a lot of truly hilarious parts in the movie; the sex scenes are just about the most awkward thing I’ve ever seen on film. The letters Greenberg sends are a good running joke. Just know going in that the humor is about as dark as it gets.
The lighting was interesting throughout, and had a touch of an over-exposed feel to the film, but used in moderation, giving it just a hair more realistic look. The music, done by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, keeps the appropriate mood while still remaining tastefully in the background. All in all, it is a well thought out, brilliantly acted movie that may be a bit tough for some to stomach. But for many of those it may also prove to be a film that grows on them after it is over. It may also serve as a jumping off point for Ben Stiller to do some more interesting roles in the future.
Click on the play buttons below to hear podcasts of a round-table phone interview with actor Ben Stiller and director Noah Bombach about “Greenberg.”