Greenberg is clearly director Noah Baumbach’s pride and joy. There is a lot of heart and sincerity in the film and the screenplay, which Baumbach also wrote. Baumbach is a frequent collaborator with fellow director Wes Anderson, who is responsible for films such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. Their most recent collaboration, Fantastic Mr. Fox, was a wonderful movie for both adult-children and child-adults. Happily, Baumbach has managed to create a film that examines American society with an honesty and reality to rival Anderson’s best efforts.
Roger Greenberg (played wonderfully by Ben Stiller) has returned to Los Angeles to housesit his brother’s home while recovering from a nervous breakdown. The reasons that led to this breakdown are revealed progressively throughout the film through Greenberg’s stilted interactions with past friends, most of whom have little time for anything but marriage and children. Single Greenberg feels alien in his old neighbourhood, especially whilst with old friend Ivan (a very likeable Rhys Ifans), who has disappointed him by growing up and raising a son.
Being unable to drive, swim or hold an un-awkward conversation, Greenberg struggles talking to people he once knew – and those he never knew, including his brother’s attractive and ever-present assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig, the highlight of the film). Stiller makes Greenberg his own person – in between nervously applying chapstick and mopping his brow, he makes genuinely hilarious observations – watching a cheerful man in a restaurant, he comments: “Laughing demonstrates appreciation – the applause seems superfluous”.
Alas, with many ‘indie’ films these days getting lazy with their incessant piano riffs, cute scripts and attractively quirky female leads, Greenberg is definitely a breath of fresh air. Admittedly, it is a breath that ventures on trite at times- an incongruous discussion of Albert Hammond’s music, there for little more than indie coolness, demonstrates this. Still, if you are one for attractively quirky female leads, Greenberg has an amazing one in Gerwig’s Florence. Greenberg’s increasingly complicated and tumultuous relationship with his brother’s assistant is both confronting and heart-warming to watch.
The character of Roger Greenberg is one of conflicts, alternating between awkwardly polite and annoyingly unlikeable from minute to minute. Whether this was simply indecisive characterisation or an attempt to portray the crippling affects of anxiety on those that suffer from it, one does come out of the film not knowing whether to hug or punch him. However, the performance is nothing but a credit to Stiller, who has not played serious so well since The Royal Tenenbaums. One remains tense as they watch him, not knowing whether he is going to flip out or break down in every scene. His restrained portrayal of Greenberg’s anxiety attacks is both subtle and heartbreaking. A minor scene where Greenberg invites old friends over for a pool party and then stays in the kitchen because he doesn’t want to speak to them is both lonely and painful to watch.
It is the sharp script that makes up for all of Greenberg’s ignorable flaws. It’s quick, clever and wonderfully delivered. All of the performances are subtle and underplayed. However, this is a movie that will undeniably divide audiences. Greenberg’s middle-class letter writing will either have you laughing or increasingly irritated, and the lack of a definite plot will either inspire or bore. Despite this, Greenberg reveals itself to be a delightful examination of the self and finding happiness.
If you aren’t one for Ben Stiller movies, then this is the Ben Stiller movie for you.
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