Sunday, October 10, 2010

Greenberg Movie Review

If writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest feature, Greenberg, feels a bit directionless, that’s probably because the title character, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), has lost focus after a breakdown and brief stay in a psychiatric ward. Come to think of it, Baumbach sort of specializes in directionless characters beginning with his first film, Kicking and Screaming, about four recent college graduates unwilling to go forth and take their places in the world. Roger Greenberg could be any one of those characters fifteen years later.

Roger is taking some time out from his hectic New York life to house sit for his brother in Los Angeles and just “do nothing for a while.” He’s afflicted with a slight bout of OCD which partially manifests itself in his penchant for writing banal complaint letters to companies that have caused him some minor inconvenience. These letters are little more than a reflection of Roger’s deep dissatisfaction with his own life and perhaps a trite story convention.

While he’s in Los Angeles he reconnects, albeit briefly and somewhat superficially, with old friends including his old bandmates (resentful of a good record deal that Roger rejected in their youth) and an old flame, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He becomes somewhat involved with his brother’s housekeeper/dog walker, Florence (Greta Gerwig), a younger woman who seems a bit mixed up by the standards of a grounded adult until you realize that she is the age Roger was when he seems to think things were going well in his life.

Roger’s biggest problem is that he’s so self-involved in his quest to return to his early twenties that he doesn’t realize that everyone else has moved on in life. He’s not exactly having a midlife crisis and Baumbach’s a better writer than to resort to an old cliché of a man trying to regain his youth. Although he does take drugs and drink copiously at a party populated by people about 15 years younger than him and something in Florence draws him in, even if he at first accepts her and then rejects her with biting criticism.

But his real desperation comes out in his appeals to his best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) to start writing songs together again and to Beth to go on a date. She turns him down flat without ambiguity. She’s divorced with kids, her life has moved far past a long-ago extinguished romance. Ivan also has kids now and no longer thinks of himself as a guitar player.

The best thing Greenberg has going for it is Gerwig’s performance, which is a revelation of an actress who is a veritable newcomer to feature films. If this film is any indication of her talent, we should expect to see some great things from her in the future. She embodies Florence completely. You forget you’re watching a performance when she’s on screen because she has such a natural manner of delivering her lines. The film is also noteworthy for providing Stiller with a rare dramatic role. He’s perfectly capable and certainly passable as Roger, but something is lacking in the performance. He handles the melancholy well, but when he has his outbursts of anger, Stiller pushes a bit too hard.

Baumbach is increasingly looking like a writer who is attempting to work through his personal issues through his screenplays, a trait which can occasionally yield interesting results. The best drama is culled from real life, but any story demands that we sympathize with the central character. Greenberg almost defies us to stick through a two hour film with a main character that is mostly repellant. When he asks Ivan to tell him honestly what other people say about him when he’s not around I think we’re meant to feel a little bit sorry for him when he hears the painful truth. Unfortunately I found myself not only agreeing with their criticisms, but also fed up with Roger for having the gall to get angry at the truth he asked for.

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