'Greenberg:' A One-Note Sonata That Doesn't Connect

Ben Stiller

A Boy Like That: Neurotic 40-something Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) doesn't make the most agreeable hero. Wilson Webb/Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Wilson Webb/Focus Features

Greenberg

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

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

Noah Baumbach has gotten rave reviews for making the title character of Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, largely unsympathetic. It's true it takes guts for Baumbach and Stiller to flout the Hollywood laws of likability so baldly, to make Roger Greenberg — a 40-ish unemployed New York carpenter in L.A. to housesit for his wealthy brother — not a charming jerk but a mopey, jerky jerk. But I wonder if there's a limit to how self-centered, how small you can make a character before you're punishing the audience.

It's a line that has gotten more vague now that audiences are turned on by the aesthetic of squirm. You watch Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, turning simple encounters into protracted psychodramas, and think, "Is this funny or painful?" Ideally, it's both — and when the approach works, as in Albert Brooks' Lost in America, you laugh at how these people can be so unaware of how ridiculous they look. It's their lack of embarrassment that makes them embarrassing.

But Greenberg is meant to be dark and uncomfortably real, part of the indie genre dubbed mumblecore, in which characters grope through life without knowing what they want or even how they feel. The question is not what's eating Greenberg, but what isn't? He's prickly, he's paranoid; he's an injustice collector who writes long letters to companies to avenge small slights. He has been hospitalized for depression, and it's possible to sympathize with his annoyance when a noisy family that's been given permission to use his brother's pool invades his blessed silence.

But then comes the scene with his brother's personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), a bright young woman barely holding her life together. Greenberg gets drunk, as he often does, and paws her with no preamble, no banter, no smile — just a caveman sense of entitlement. And she doesn't slug him. She has so little self-worth, she thinks Roger is relationship material.

Rhys Ifans, Ben Stiller i i

Rhys Ifans plays Roger's former bandmate — a guy who's still a friend despite the disappointments of their friendship. Wilson Webb/Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Wilson Webb/Focus Features
Rhys Ifans, Ben Stiller

Rhys Ifans plays Roger's former bandmate — a guy who's still a friend despite the disappointments of their friendship.

Wilson Webb/Focus Features

Baumbach, in his way, thinks so too. On one hand, he seizes every opportunity to score points off the character, building scenes to expose Roger's pretentiousness — so there's nothing to do but sit and wait for him to appall you again. On the other hand, Baumbach paces the movie as if this stunted child-man is some kind of fascinating case study, and you're invited to consider how he might be saved. Greenberg has the vague outline of a romance in which a prig learns to loosen up and care for someone else, but even Roger's breakthroughs reek of childish egotism.

On their own terms, parts of Greenberg are perversely entertaining. Rhys Ifans plays the ex-bandmate Roger once let down by walking away from a recording contract. Their scenes are droopy and awkward, amusing for the ways in which Roger doesn't register his friend's everlasting hurt. And in Gerwig, Baumbach has an attractively flighty heroine: Early on, when Florence is running errands for Roger's brother's family, Gerwig fairly sings her lines, the melody keeping her buoyed up through the indignities of servitude. Later, as she endures Roger's passive-aggressive abuse, she clings to her spaciness as if to keep his craziness at bay. Greenberg might be a heckuva movie if we could just get Greenberg out of there.

Baumbach and cinematographer Harris Savides create layers and levels of space to suggest a world with so much stuff — furniture, swimming pools, drugs — that people can go through life without connecting. But Roger doesn't connect with us. Even damaged, unpleasant characters need dramatic stature — something that transcends individual foolishness and strikes a larger chord. Greenberg is a one-note sonata.

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