It seems like every two or three years Ben Stiller makes up for the couple mediocre family comedies he makes (Madagascar, Meet the Fockers) by starring in a great comedy like Tropic Thunder (which he also directed) or in this case, leading an amazing character driven film like Greenberg from writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). With is latest venture, Baumbach brings yet another peculiar, somewhat unlikeable yet inexplicably charming character to the table brought to life effortlessly by Stiller, an actor who usually keeps his comedy light, but isn’t afraid about going to the dark side. So without further adieu, hit the jump to dive into the wholly unique mind of Greenberg.
Having previously directed a film like The Cable Guy and venturing into more serious (yet still dryly funny) territory with The Royal Tenenbaums, it’s not beyond Ben Stiller’s capabilities to ground himself into a character who doesn’t have off-the-wall misadventures late at night in museums. With Greenberg, Stiller sink his teeth into a character who clearly has some issues. Roger Greenberg (Stiller) has just been released from a New York mental hospital and arrives in Los Angeles to clear his mind and just relax in his brother’s house while he and his family vacation in Vietnam of all places. He’s not completely out of his element though since his longtime friend Ivan lives in town and comes around to catch up. When Ivan’s not around, Roger has awkward exchanges with his brother’s nanny/assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), but they become fast friends, or at least casual acquaintances. Slowly but surely, what seems like romance and redemption for Roger is cut off just as quickly as the sudden session of cunnilingus that he performs on Florence in one of their early “dates.” Roger is a human enigma, and a man whose friends simply put up with him, rather than willingly spend time with him often.
The problem with Roger, we discover, is his inability to have any sort of healthy friendship, romantic relationship or otherwise due to his self-destructive, passive-aggressive personalty that overpowers what little charm he has. Soon enough, even Ivan and Florence can only take so much. As Ivan goes through his own troubles during a trial separation from his wife, and undesirable time away from his son, Roger can’t even be bothered to be sympathetic between extended periods of self-loathing. This is a man who can spend time hand-writing letters to the mayor of NYC or the Starbucks corporation to lodge formal complaints, but doesn’t have the inclination to lend an ear to his friends since Roger’s problems are just so overwhelming.
More prominently, both Roger and some of his other friends can’t seem to come to terms with the rift in all of their lives when their once thriving rock band fell apart after Roger refused to sign to a record label. The moment when both Roger and Ivan (who was also in the band) come to terms with the fact that both of them have a reason to be mad about that situation (as opposed to just the rest of the band) is an important hurdle to overcome for Ivan, but Roger makes it all about him and it’s almost unbearable. Likely we all have a friend like this, and while this shared experience doesn’t necessarily make the film entertaining, it’s certainly a provoking and in-depth character study, which is what we’ve come to expect from Baumbach’s work.
Yes, I’m calling this film a good one, but does that mean the story is satisfying on an emotional level? Absolutely not. It doesn’t seem like Roger ever learns a lesson enough to change his ways completely (and that’s fine, because people don’t re-work their entire personalities at the drop of a hat), but it seems like he has a chance to make it there. This isn’t the complete character arc the Roger would have if he were in a mainstream studio drama, but rather just a short period of time in his life where he has hopefully learned a little about himself and his friends but not in that cheesy after school special kind of way. The time in the film (in relation to the rest of his life) is just as brief as the romantic moments Florence and Roger spend together. Both also seem to begin and end abruptly enough to not really have any clear beginning or end, which is an honest, genuine yet somewhat depressing. I guess that’s life in the mind of Noah Baumbach; an interesting place, but one that is just a little too real in which to be wholly comfortable.
There are only three very short featurettes that don’t really give much insight into the making of the film itself, but they are as follows:
- A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Greenberg
- Greenberg Loves Los Angeles
- Noah Baumbach Takes a Novel Approach
THE FINAL WORD:
Greenberg is a fantastic and impacting character study that certainly has entertaining moments, but isn’t exactly the most satisfying look at life (for Roger Greenberg or anybody for that matter). If you’re a Baumbach fan, I’d say it’s worth the purchase, but if you’re a fan of lighthearted, funny Ben Stiller, than you’ll want to rent this one for a test drive.