"He's got a lot on his mind."
Greenberg is a movie made in a style that a really enjoy. No real beginning, no real end, but only how life really goes. It's truly what we could call a "real life" movie. Now I can understand why many wouldn't have appreciation for a film like Greenberg. It doesn't care about creating laughs or tears, but only in presenting an unlikable character in Roger Greenberg. There's a lot of themes rolling out of this character, so if you like character driven movies, you should be able to like this one.
Roger comes back to LA from New York and is staying at his rich brothers place while he is on vacation with his family in Vietnam. His brother has a young personal assistant named Florence who was told that she may need to help Roger with some things and that he's just getting out of a mental hospital and is a little unstable. Roger and Florence begin seeing each other in an awkward and weird sort of way, while Roger struggles with some of his past disappointments and relationships.
The movie is slow and not strong on "entertainment." If you've seen any of Noah Baumbach's movies, you'll recognize it as his right of the bat. He uses characters that are sort of pretentious assholes that believe they know it all. Greenberg is a less pretentious(if only maybe because he isn't as smart) version of the father in Baumbach's masterpiece The Squid and The Whale. Greenberg doesn't quite reach the perfection of that movie, but it is still a really well made, interesting, and at least to me, great movie.
You gotta love Ben Stiller in another serious role after doing more silly shit than serious shit over the years. Also I really like Greta Gerwig who has her own demeanor on screen that comes across as very real. Rhys Ifans is just the cherry on top as far as the cast goes. As far story, there's not much needed and I appreciate movies that don't need that much story driven material. This one just let's the title character take over the movie and it works very well.
All in all, it's a well done and well called for character movie that flies against the norms, something that many other films have tried to be and failed.
This movie is essentially no more than observing Roger's blundering path through life for a couple of weeks - there is no story as such. It certainly isn't a comedy - there is relatively little humour in it, and Ben Stiller's character isn't even slightly funny. His angry schtick reminiscent of Furious in Mystery Men. Greta Gerwig does a complex and unpredictable, but all in all quite sympathetic portrayal of Florence.
The events in the film unfold casually... so casually even the characters don't seem to notice. Birthday dinners, trips to the vet, and even abortions are all treated with the same numb detachment.
I think the degree to which you like this film, and films like this (cf. Deconstructing Harry and Whatever Works), is predicated upon the degree to which you can identify with the main character even as you recognize his numerous flaws. If, for example, you've been motivated to write letters of complaint to every major corporation you've had to deal with, even as you recognize the annoyance you elicit and the futility of your action, then you might find a mutual humanity in Roger Greenberg. Likewise, if you've needed someone but also been repulsed by your own neediness, then the main plot of the film will resonate. Ben Stiller's performance as Greenberg is quite good; he captures the character's inner desperation and outer inability to connect with anybody. Stiller's rather natural charm is appropriately suppressed through most of the film, and I think there was room to make Greenberg occasionally more appealing, but director Noah Baumbach and Stiller must have thought that such moment would take away from the character's ire.
Greta Gerwig also delivers a strong performance as a woman whose sense of self has been painfully eroded, and I liked how even the supporting characters have lives outside of the plots involving Greenberg. In many films like this, it seems as though the supporting characters only support, with no independent lives.
The film's flaw is the ending. It is as though Baumbach believed that Florence's response was either a fait accompli or unimportant; either way, it short-changes her character and the film.
Overall, Greenberg, like the character, is a hard film to like but an even harder film to ignore.
In Greenberg, Ben Stiller is the 40 year old, and for the most part the film does a fair job of mining those contemplative possibilities as he re-connects with old friends and romances. Unfortunately this is not the only theme of the film and it is the other theme, that includes one of those wacky, made in Hollywood kind of disassociative love stories - you know the type, where odd wacky girl is, for god knows what reason, smitten by our hero, even though he's a self centered ass who appears to have no respect for her feelings, or her person. Ah, but love conquers all - yep, this film has a bridge to sell ya, and it doesn't help that Stiller is recovering from a mental breakdown, and as such gets a big get out of jail free card - it's as if he has carte blanche to be a jerk and then everyone just smiles and gives him a pass because he's "troubled".
The direction of the film is adequate as far as it goes, trying to keep the script interesting while juggling the two themes. There is even a supporting character, that of Stiller's old best friend, who provides a moral center to the film - playing a man who had grown up and moved on and is already content with the person and life he has found - something that Stiller is still grappling with (hence the aforementioned breakdown).
If the film had only focused on these ageing and self realization issues instead of investing so much face time to the romance, it would have played much better. But alas, the romantic theme is front and center - to the point where the quirky, much younger female (played competently by Greta Gerwig) is the one on screen during the first fifteen minutes of the film - as if to say "yeah, we know that the name of the film is Greenberg, but it's really about this girl.
The girl unfortunately is more of a nut job in her own way than Greenberg - I guess the message was that she was supposed to be adrift in life as well, but gee golly, that's just what I wanted to see - two slightly crazy people falling for each other - doesn't it just tug at the old heartstrings? The entire romance would have been ok as a background bit on the road to self-discovery, but I felt it got in the way of the much more rewarding theme.
For example, there is a wonderfully done scene where Greenberg tries to re-connect with an old girlfriend. He tells her a story from his point of view concerning an event that happened 15 years earlier - it is obviously very important to him, as he remembers the smallest of details. But when he apologizes for hurting her over said incident, she looks at him oddly and then confesses that she doesn't remember the incident at all. Man, I've been there - something that was a very important event in my life, and something that I thought I had shared with someone special, I later found out wasn't even a blip on her radar screen- and yet conversely there were things she remembered fondly that I had totally forgotten. This was a powerful and true observation, but then the film mishandled the conclusion by having Greenberg hit on the girl in spite of all the evidence that their prior relationship was much more important to him than it was to her. And of course all this was in the middle of Greenberg's sorta on, sorta off relationship with Gerwig.
I suppose the ultimate message here is that we're all searching for connection - with our self and with others; but in attempting to tie it all up with a nice happy face and a "I'll settle" kind of love, the film failed in its attempt to truly soar.
One final point - Gerwig slouches through the entire film - whether this was her attempt to portray a younger, more uncouth woman, I still felt like yelling at the screen "stand up straight!!!"
Following a nervous breakdown, New York carpenter Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) arrives in LA to look after his brothers family home and sickly dog. His path crosses with the family's young assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), and an awkward relationship develops. He also tries to rekindle old friendships from when he was an up-and-comer quite some time ago.
Baumbach focuses yet again on neurotic behaviour and the fragility of a person crumbling under the weight of his own expectation and ambition. I wouldn't say that I'm all that keen on Ben Stiller but like Jack Black in "Margot at the Wedding", he puts all his irritating and outrageous send-ups aside and concentrates on acting. No, he doesn't get his dick caught in his zip or anything, but what he does do is show restraint and puts in a very nuanced and subtley brilliant dramatic performance. This director certainly knows how to get the best out of an actor and Stiller is not alone. Greta Gerwig is absolutely marvellous and produces one of the most natural and beautifully rich performances I've seen in a long time. This is an actress that deserves more attention. Rhys Ifans is also very endearing and adds depth and realism as Greenberg's long suffering friend. It's a trio of excellent performances, making the characters really come alive and Baumbach displays a talent for capturing the everyday perfectly, showing an affinity with Woody Allen in his sharp observations and neurotic characters.
Roger Greenberg as a character has a lot in common with Nicole Kidman's Margot in their social awkwardness and almost natural ability to hurt someones feelings and despite Stiller's excellent performance, that's what hinders the film slightly. He's a detestable, rude and egotistical man, that we are forced to spend a lot of time with, making it less enjoyable than the director's previous outings to angst-ville.
Despite the irritatingly self-absorbed character and his very privileged lifestyle this is still another refined and assured character study from the very talented Noah Baumbach.
Without artifices, without huge happenings, Greenberg is as simple and "slow down" as life is. I wouldn't say Noah Baumbach is the new Woody Allen, but they sure share some similarities beyond the fact both were born in Brooklyn and have a taste for "neurotic intellectual characters". Los Angeles has a central role as New York does in Manhattan or both New York and Los Angeles in Annie Hall. Roger Greenberg feels so uncomfortable as Alvy Singer felt in LA, but he lacks of what I might say it's is the main difference between Allen's and Baumbach's characters: a certain lightness . Allen's are enjoyable neurotic people, when Baumbach's are mostly painful, like Margot and Bernard Berkman. However, I don't see Greenberg like the jerk depressing guy or whatever everyone is saying. He's only vulnerable , incapable of taking part in life, in a life he didn't plan on : "Are you pulling a Gatsby and watching the party from afar?", Ivan asks. "l don't know that l need to document the reasons how this isn't like a Gatsby", says Roger. It's hard to look back and admit you did the wrong choice, to embrace a life that is very far from what you expected. It's hard to be lost between an "adult and responsible" life all your friends are living and a new world where you don't seem to fit in.
"Are you kids really different from me? l mean, do the movies, and the iPods, and the facility with MySpace pages make you guys really different? Every article l read seems to be saying that. (...) The thing about you kids is you're all kind of insensitive. There's a confidence in you guys that's horrifying. l'm freaked out by you kids. I hope l die before l end up meeting one of you in a job interview".
I'm freaked out by those kids too and there's not even 10 years aparting us. There's definitely a confidence in them that's horrifying, but horrifying for being such an empty, meaningless generation. But ,hopefully, there's a happy medium. Florence is a sort of lost-somehow lonely- but full of life adorable young woman. She is not a complex or that interesting character, but she's so refreshing that is impossible to not like her. Greta Gerwig has such a lively and natural acting that she catches you in the first scenes, driving to the Greenberg's. There's something really nice about her and Florence definitely has a lot of Annie Hall. Like Allen's film is not only about Annie, Greenberg is not only about Roger, but if Annie "only exists" attached to Alvy (we only see her life without him, ex boyfriends, etc, through/because of him), Florence lives beyond Roger. The film opens with her and closes with him, in a very lovely scene (despite the title, both are main characters). She does bring life to his boredom, but not exactly in the common meaning of that saying: even if not purposely, she helps him to face himself. Hurt people hurt people, but some of us still can love them.
*F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, also mentioned in The Squid and the Whale, must really had been an important book to Baumbach. How much biographical is The Squid and the Whale? Or maybeBaumbach feels himself as Gatsby?
And on that note, how depressing is that ending? Posited as happy, I felt it left nothing but melancholy for us to dwell on. There's no way this implied future can be anything but miserable. Sad, sad stuff.