In 'Greenberg,' A Comical Ode To The Slackoisie

Greta Gerwig

hide captionThrough The Looking Glass: Greta Gerwig plays Florence, an aspiring singer who forges a connection with the depressed and aimless title character of Noah Baumbach's Greenberg.

Wilson Webb/Focus Features

Greenberg

  • Director: Noah Baumbach
  • Genre: Comedy, Drama
  • Running Time: 107 minutes
Rated R for sexuality, drugs and language

With: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh

(Recommended)

At the outset of the new comedy from Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), the eponymous protagonist arrives in Los Angeles from New York, where he's been doing very little aside from some carpentry to pay the bills. Here on the Left Coast, he plans to do even less — while nominally housesitting for his high-achieving brother.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) has no job, no fixed abode and no relationships that stick, unless you count his old friend Ivan — an ex-bandmate adrift in marital troubles, played low-key and serious by Welsh wild man Rhys Ifans, otherwise known as Hugh Grant's adorably loony roomie in Notting Hill — and former girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has moved further ahead with her life than Greenberg is willing to acknowledge.

Yet Greenberg's aimless existence is less a lifestyle than a defensive crouch. With his verbal fists up, ready to hurt the world before it can hurt him, our antihero is angry, bitter and sporadically mean. And like many thwarted achievers who haven't yet lost their drive to make a mark, he expends his energy in an orgy of epistolary consumer rage, firing off letters of complaint for minor offenses to his comfort and convenience.

Flummoxed by the slightest glitch in the minimal duties that are his as designated housesitter, Greenberg calls on Florence, his brother's personal assistant, and they embark on the desultory sex-with-benefits dating that passes for romance among the modern-day slackoisie. Played with tentative charm by Greta Gerwig, the uncrowned queen of low-budget mumblecore movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs, this young woman (an aspiring singer) is a loose-ended blond beauty in indeterminate pease-pudding cardigans. At first blush she seems as aimless and dissatisfied as the lover who bestows on her the kind of mixed messages to which she's all too accustomed. But Florence has something Greenberg seems to lack — potential — and in the cracks between their push-pull feints, something may be changing.

That's new for Baumbach, who tends to hold his fastidiously cerebral nose at the prospect of plot or character development, and whose self-conscious movies — even his promising debut Kicking and Screaming — usually come marred by a mean spirit dressed up as psychological insight. Throughout The Squid and the Whale, I kept wondering what the writer-director's parents felt as they smiled gamely through the premiere of this barely disguised take-down of their troubled marriage, not to mention their neurotic temperaments. And the muddy-looking Margot at the Wedding, which featured some of the most unsalvageably repellent whiners I've met on or off screen, appeared to have been shot through a torn retina.

Rhys Ifans, Ben Stiller i i

hide captionMen On The Verge: A post-breakdown Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller, right) travels to Los Angeles to housesit for his overachieving family-man of a brother. While there, he reconnects with an old friend and former bandmate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans, left).

Wilson Webb/Focus Features
Rhys Ifans, Ben Stiller

Men On The Verge: A post-breakdown Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller, right) travels to Los Angeles to housesit for his overachieving family-man of a brother. While there, he reconnects with an old friend and former bandmate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans, left).

Wilson Webb/Focus Features

Greenberg, by contrast, is on every level the work of a more mature filmmaker, and quite possibly a happier man. Collaborating with his wife (the actress and writer Jennifer Jason Leigh, who grew up in Los Angeles), Baumbach sidesteps the reflexive New Yorker's contempt for the city shown by his longtime hero, Woody Allen, in favor of a charmingly relaxed acceptance of Greenberg's Hollywood Hills milieu. If anything, Baumbach seems influenced by early Robert Altman, editing his scenes in such a way as to make us feel as though we're eavesdropping on people living their lives rather than declaiming clever lines of dialogue. And he has coaxed out of Ben Stiller — an actor who has often been content with an uninflected gimlet stare into the headlights of humiliation — a subtle portrayal of a man stewing in a crisis he refuses to acknowledge, and which bursts out of him in gusts of misdirected rage.

Best of all, Baumbach has opened himself up to the pleasures of forward motion. For much of Greenberg, his articulate but ineffably clueless hero — even as he cocoons himself in the spurious superiority of the thoroughly marginalized — digs himself deeper into tragic-comic regression until he ends up at a fork in the road precipitated by his being the oldest guest, by at least 20 years, at a drug-addled party.

For all Greenberg's strenuous efforts to persuade himself and others that he wants nothing and regrets nothing, there is a reason for his funk. His alienation is not, as in Baumbach's other movies, brought about by deadbeat parents but by his own actions, a fateful decision made in his absolutist youth. Saying it out loud, and doing a little good for someone else, frees Greenberg not for some easy epiphany but for a slow, uneven process of climate change that raises the possibilities of ordinary happiness.

And the recognition, for that matter, that you don't have to be Jesus Christ to become a useful carpenter to those you might love — and who might just love you in return.

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