Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brie Larson, Juno Temple, Mark Duplass
Running Time: 107 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Right after watching Greenberg it occurred to me that Ben Stiller didn't smile the entire movie. Not once. That's impressive, especially considering this is supposed to be a comedy, though not necessarily surprising since Stiller has always come off as a depressed, contained type of actor, even when playing goofier roles. And that's why he's perfect for Roger Greenberg, a neurotic, mentally and emotionally fragile 40-year-old, who returns home to California from New York to stay at his brother's. When he's told by his friend and former band mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who still resents him for blowing their record deal in their twenties, that "youth is wasted on the young," he responds by stating "life is wasted on PEOPLE." That sarcastic little nugget of wisdom should give you a good idea the type of character we're dealing with and for much of the first hour you might be wondering if this film is wasted on us. But it isn't. While not as substantial as I expected, it's still a modestly well-put together character piece.
Of writer/director Noah Baumbach's past few efforts, this is easily his weakest, understandably falling short of the high bar set by The Squid and the Whale and even lacking the satirical bite of 2007's inferior (but still pretty great) Margot at the Wedding. What they all have in common is a focus on detestable characters going through a life crisis of some sort. We're not supposed to like them, just want to at least attempt to understand their behavior and care what happens to them, but even that can be trying at times since Greenberg isn't merely unlikable but someone who treats everyone he comes in contact with such contempt it can become insufferable for the viewer to spend any time with him at all. Luckily, Baumbach knows this and doesn't make him our main entry point into the story. Instead it's his brother's assistant, Florence Marr, who's played by relative unknown Greta Gerwig in the non-performance of the year, and I mean that as a compliment. She's like that friendly girl you'd run into at the coffee shop or bookstore, but there just so happens to be a camera on her, even though it never seems as if she's acting at all.
It doesn't take but the first few minutes of the picture for Gerwig to get us on Florence's side, whether she's just walking the dog or stuck in traffic. And the more time we spend with her the more we like her and if she says we'll be tolerating Greenberg's behavior today, well then, we'll be tolerating Greenberg's behavior today, no matter how irritating it gets. To everyone else he's an angry weirdo, but to her he's "damaged." This is one of THOSE movies, in which a loserish character approaching middle age with regret over a big mistake (or a variety of them) from the past is rescued by a younger, impossibly perfect woman. But in playing her Gerwig instead projects imperfectness, as well as an uncertainty and lack of confidence that would make the scenario plausible. She puts up with his tirades and verbal abuse, yet also somehow makes us understand why.
As a character, Greenberg is sort of a drag, since he doesn't do anything but mope and insult others over the fact that he feels life passed him by. His interactions with his ex-girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are painfully embarrassing if only for his inability to take a hint and just move on. It makes sense no one would attempt to help him since he's such a jerk and one would assume he doesn't care, even if he really does. This creates a somewhat challenging viewing experience since it isn't exactly a blast seeing people's neuroses and insecurities splashed all over the screen, no matter how intelligently it's presented. Baumbach's a pro but at points it all becomes draining since this is supposed to be a comedy. The movie feels most alive and funniest during an extended party sequence in which a stoned Greenberg proves that he just might be the world's oldest 40-year-old, so hysterically out of touch with young people (or ANY people) that he could have dropped in from another planet to observe our species. Like Baumbach's best films, that situation's humor comes from a sad, cringe-worthy uncomfortableness that mirrors real-life.
Would it be cheaper for Baumbach to just hire himself a therapist instead of making these movies? At this budget, probably, but I still hope he doesn't and keeps going because you can't knock a guy for writing and directing personal movies he's passionate about, and especially since he's good at it. With a comfortably lazy, laid back story more interested in behavior than plot (and a retro-feeling soundtrack to match) it seems like a throwback in method and style to some of the more character-driven films of the 70's that audiences just don't seem to have as much patience for today, which is completely understandable. There is a limit to how much realism and inaction a film can sustain, and there's no doubt it's pushed to its limits here. Greenberg certainly won't be mistaken for being anything important or original, but it still slides nicely into Baumbach's filmography, continuing his streak of making smart observations about what makes people tick.