Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Directed by Noah Baumbach. 107 minutes. 18A.
I wanted to like Greenberg. I really did. But like all of Noah Baumbach’s painfully pretentiously awkward movies (The Squid and the Whale, the abominable Margot at the Wedding), it was just too uncomfortable to take.
Greenberg follows a middle-aged man named Roger (Ben Stiller) who is house-sitting for his brother and his family (who are off in Vietnam for some inexplicable reason) after spending a ominous stint in a mental hospital. He’s unemployed and out of his comfort zone (this fam lives in L.A., he’s been in NYC for years), so when his bro tells him to direct any of his problems to his young hipster of a personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), he finds himself awkwardly trying to woo her as an effort to make a connection to something. Somehow, it works, and she falls hard for him, but he’s too caught up in his own weird, whiny little world, to treat her, or her feelings right.
The problem with this, and every other Baumbach movie, is he tries so hard to remove his characters from traditional cut-and-dry emotions, turning them into reiterations of every indie movie’s intently vague lost girl and boy. Sometimes that type of characterization works wonders (See: Cyrus). In this case, however, there’s nothing to connect to in these characters, who brush off abortions like they’re dental appointments, write unnecessary complaint letters to every business they encounter and ask their friends to “sit on [their] dick” for ordering them a birthday cake at a restaurant. Greenberg is supposed to be mentally unstable, and thus, forgivable, but he just comes off as a emotionally stunted cad, stuck between committing to full-fledged adulthood and letting go of the acceptable slacker state of your late 20s.
Although his character is seriously unlikeable, his performance definitely deserves praise. He is the reason Greenberg is so intensely off-the-wall off-putting; he puts his whole heart into this strange character. He becomes him, body (greying Jew fro) and soul (stoic expressions and deadpan speech patterns) leaving his frat pack past behind to embody the lovechild of his and Ethan Hawke’s characters in Reality Bites. There’s no blue steel or mocha frappucinos to be had here. Just whiskey, ice cream sandwiches and middle-aged blues. Without all the gimmick costumes and silly faces, Stiller’s a slightly grown-up Benjamin Braddock, looking for meaning through meaningless social and sexual interaction and failing rather epically.
The only other really engaging part of Greenberg is the cinematography. It’s simple, and dare I say, gritty, evoking a high-quality documentary. The lighting is unflattering. You can see every scar on the characters faces, every freckle, every stray hair. But it works because that’s really Baumbach’s goal. He wants to showcase people’s flaws first and foremost and force viewers to work to find the redeeming qualities underneath the superficial muck.
Despite his inspired camera work, Noah Baumbach and I will never be even be friends (unless he’s working alongside the much more emotionally engaging Wes Anderson). But I think this serious Stiller character might make it to third base. If he plays his next few cards right. C+
EXTRAS: A few featurettes: “A Behind-the-Scenes Look At Greenberg”, “Greenberg Loves Los Angeles” and “Noah Baumbach Takes A Novel Approach”.