One of the most touching lines in Noah Baumbach's remarkable "Greenberg" is an announcement by the wistful young heroine, Florence Marr: "I've gotta stop doing things just because they feel good."
Good? There's no evidence that Florence—a portrait of heartbreaking delicacy by Greta Gerwig—feels truly good about anything. She feels bad about herself, and properly anxious about an emerging love affair with Roger Greenberg, a middle-aging misanthrope played with intransigent brilliance by Ben Stiller. Everything's relative, of course. Florence is joyous compared to Roger, a former musician whose anger at the world is matched only by his narcissism. Yet the wonder of the film is how good it makes us feel. "Greenberg" scintillates with intelligence, razor's-edge humor and austere empathy for its struggling lovers.
This is a new departure for Mr. Baumbach, even though he might seem to be working the same territory of neurotic dysfunction and mutual need that he explored, sometimes relentlessly, in "The Squid and the Whale" and "Margot at the Wedding." What's new is the combination of warmth and reserve. The film is extremely entertaining—a real romance, however tortured it may be—yet tough-minded and confidently self-contained.
See this darkly comic character study unburdened by preconceptions. Writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) walks the fragile line between humor and heartbreak. Ben Stiller is exceptional as Roger Greenberg, a failed New York musician housesitting for his brother in the Hollywood Hills and wondering how life sent him adrift. Selfish, neurotic and often an asshole, Roger exists to sweat the small stuff. He's delusional about his ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his former bandmate (Rhys Ifans). Why his brother's sweet, affectless assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), would go to bed with this grab bag of dysfunctions is a mystery even to Roger. But not to us. Baumbach tracks Roger without glib condescension. That's why Greenberg pulls you in. Even when you laugh, like in the climactic party scene, it hurts.
Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg marks a return to form for the director who hit movie heaven with his savage, Oscar-nominated comedy The Squid and the Whale five years ago, only to plummet back to earth with Margot at the Wedding. Like those films, Greenberg is about family and the ability to make connections—or not—that proceeds from how we are brought up, and the movie’s wickedly humorous edge is nicely serrated. But instead of the earlier films’ on-screen ensembles, Baumbach and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who cowrote the story and has a small but pungent part, let us sense the ties that bind (and bind, and bind) through the neurotic prism of Ben Stiller’s Roger Greenberg. He could have been the kid at the end of Margot doing his best to flee Nicole Kidman’s voracious, seductive mom, or the teen in Squid whose dad—a brilliant Jeff Daniels—assiduously teaches him how to be unbearable. Too often for his own good, Greenberg is unbearable, so absorbed by anxiety and a furious sense of grievance that he’s grossly insensitive to the people around him. He’s not much of a grown-up; he’s too tormented for that and, more exasperating, too attached to his own neuroses. But despite his crankiness, there’s something universal about him.
The lesson Ben Stiller's praise-hungry actor learned in "Tropic Thunder" was that "you never go full retard" when playing a simpleton in hopes of snaring an Academy Award.
Stiller himself goes full nutcase, or near enough, in "Greenberg," and while the results won't earn him an Oscar, it turned out pretty well.
As the title character, a guy pausing at mid-life to lick his wounds, heal some old rifts and maybe open a few new ones, Stiller manages quite a nice performance.
Rather than the silly, caricatured buttheads on which Stiller's made his fortune, in "Greenberg" he plays a true butthead, a man with deep emotional scars, a backpack full of guilt and a bushel of regrets. Here's a man whose excess of self-involvement, self-doubt and self-loathing often make him unpleasant to be around — so the fact that he's still an engaging character is a testament to the fine line Stiller manages to walk.
Greenberg is about embracing the life you never planned on — albeit awkwardly and with a flurry of caveats and complaints.
It may not appeal to those seeking escape or non-stop action. But for those looking for realistic, complex characters coping with believable emotional hurdles, this is an unexpected gem.
Director Noah Baumbach wrote a perceptive slice-of-life script from a story he conceived with his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.
As with his sharply observed The Squid and the Whale in 2005, Baumbach finds humor and pathos in a smart, neurotic and self-involved character. Ben Stiller is superb as the curmudgeonly Roger Greenberg, a character who is light-years away from most of Stiller's comic foils.
Roger is 40ish and riding out an especially virulent midlife crisis. He leaves his New York existence to house-sit at the Hollywood Hills home of his brother Philip (Chris Messina), who is on an extended vacation with his wife and two children.
I spoke this morning with Greenberg star Ben Stiller inside a semi-quiet restaurant (i.e., not really quiet enough) adjacent to the Waldorf Astoria's main lobby. It went well, perhaps of my certainty that Stiller delivers the performance of his career in Noah Baumbach's intensely granular film about midlife stagnation and L.A. loneliness. No ambiguity in your head means calm and clarity.
Greenberg (Focus Features, 3.19 limited) is easily the most intriguing film of the new year, and more than worth a tumble. It doesn't exactly "entertain," and yet it does -- it's just operating in a low-key way that's almost entirely about observation, and without a single false note. If your girlfriend doesn't like it (and she may not), you may want to think about dumping her. Seriously. Because Greenberg is about what a lot of 30ish and 40ish people who haven't achieved fame and fortune are going through, or will go through. It's dryly amusing at times, but it's not kidding around.
… But the one picture I've seen thus far that has truly surprised me is Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg." I've found Baumbach's more recent films frustrating. "Margot at the Wedding," in particular, made me wonder if we'd lost Baumbach for good -- I found it hard to care about a group of characters so rapturously in love with their own quirks; they, and Baumbach, were more fascinated by their own problems than I was.
"Greenberg" features more characters with problems: There's Ben Stiller's fortyish Roger, the Greenberg of the title, who's just been released from a mental hospital in New York and who now finds himself housesitting at his brother's tony digs in L.A. While he hangs out there, acting strangely and often irresponsibly, spending his numerous spare moments writing kvetching letters to Starbucks, the New York Times, and American Airlines, Roger meets his brother's assistant, Florence (played by mumblecore veteran Greta Gerwig). Florence, insecure but strangely forthright, takes a liking to Roger, even though he does everything in his power to rebuff her, often treating her cruelly, or at least thoughtlessly.