'Greenberg:' A One-Note Sonata That Doesn't Connect Noah Baumbach's movie stars Ben Stiller as a 40-ish unemployed carpenter searching for meaning in his life. After seeing the film, critic David Edelstein wonders if there's a limit "to how self-centered, how small you can make a character before you're punishing the audience."
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'Greenberg:' A One-Note Sonata That Doesn't Connect

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

Review

Movies

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

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Noah Baumbach is best known for his autobiographical 2005 drama "The Squid and the Whale," the story of two brothers devastated by their parents' divorce. His new film, "Greenberg," also features two brothers. The film focuses on Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, a depressed 40-year-old who is still unsure what to do with his life. He's housesitting in LA for his more successful sibling.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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" as he turns 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. He writes long letters to companies to avenge small slights. He's been hospitalized for depression, and it's possible to sympathize with his annoyance when a noisy family with permission to use his brother's pool invades his blessed silence.

But then comes the scene with his brother's personal assistant, Florence, played by 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.

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.

(Soundbite of movie, "Greenberg")

Mr. BEN STILLER (Actor): (As Roger) People don't call on my birthday anymore. I guess I dont call people on their birthdays. Why should they call me? I didnt call you. When's yours?

Mr. RHYS IFANS (Actor): (As Ivan) November.

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) That's right. I'll call you this year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) Way over this. Where (unintelligible) this guy?

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) Laughing already demonstrates appreciation. The applause seems superfluous. And also it's like, just treat the restaurant like it's your living room, guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) I'm weirdly on tonight.

Mr. IFANS: (As Ivan) (Unintelligible)

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) Maybe I should've invited Florence, or I should've had a party.

Mr. IFANS: (As Ivan) Better days ahead, man.

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) It's weird, aging, right?

Mr. IFANS: (As Ivan) Youth is wasted on the young.

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) I'd go further. I'd go life is wasted on people.

EDELSTEIN: And in Greta 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, when she endures Roger's passive-aggressive abuse, she clings to her spaciness as if to keep his craziness at bay. "Greenberg" might be a heck of a 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.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

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