Mark Reviews Movies

GREENBERG

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Noah Baumbach

Cast: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Merrit Wever, Chris Messina

MPAA Rating: R (for some strong sexuality, drug use, and language)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 3/19/10 (NY/LA); 3/26/10 (limited)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 25, 2010

Life is spent getting there. At 41, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) has no clue where "there" is. He remembers "then," perhaps a bit too fondly. He obsesses with "then," even while denying such, because "now" is just a drag. "Now" is recovering from a nervous breakdown, having no personal or professional prospects, and living in his brother's (Chris Messina) palatial Los Angeles mansion while the sibling is away.

There's also Florence (Greta Gerwig) in his "now," his brother's 20-something assistant, who is at Roger's beck and call for whatever groceries he might need (usually liquor and ice cream sandwiches), to drive him around town, and to occasionally fool around, when he isn't acting like a complete jerk toward her.

Roger is a jerk, a man in stunted development, and the success of Greenberg hinges on writer/director Noah Baumbach's understanding of this fact and how it has led this sad, pathetic man to the spot in which he finds himself. Baumbach doesn't judge or condone, but he clearly identifies with Roger, his denial of reality, a false sense of what his problems are and where the solutions lie, and how these traits make him stuck in an undeniable rut.

Florence is trapped in her own, as well. After a failed relationship, she's not looking for a new one but does have a one night stand with a guy she meets at an art exhibition. When Roger calls her up to go out for drinks one night, they end up back at her apartment (The neighborhood bar she wants to go to is out of his comfort zone), and the resulting sexual clash comes out of convenience more than anything else, except maybe obligation (their connection through the brother). He's a safe bet for her in terms of a fling—older, damaged, and, for all intents and purposes, leaving town soon. For a relationship, he's a bad idea, yet, she sees something in him that has her talking to a friend (Merritt Wever) in those terms.

For Roger, the encounter means as much as it can, which is very little. He's considering getting back together with an old ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is recently divorced. His old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) comes to visit. He and Roger were in a band back "then," but their record deal went south when Roger decided for the rest of the band that it wasn't really what they wanted. It wasn't what he wanted, and while the other members of the band have succeeded, Ivan is out of rehab, separated from his wife, and only sees his son on the weekends. None of their old, mutual friends knows why Ivan talks with Roger still, let alone why he drives him around when Florence isn't available.

She becomes less and less available when Roger decides to take out some of his baggage on her, and he has a lot of baggage.

It becomes clear Roger has no sense of others. Everyone else realizes it, but few are brave enough to call him out on it. His brother is, especially when the family dog falls ill while under his watch. The brother cannot believe he messed this up, too.

Perhaps their silence has to do with Roger's medical history. Perhaps they have tried to point out this character flaw in the past and met enough resistance to give up entirely. Whatever the reason, Roger lives with the perception that life was so much better way back when before everyone else screwed it up for him. His tendency to blame continues in his "now," writing complaint letter after complaint letter for the most infinitesimal inconveniences.

He's not an inherently likeable character, but that's the point. Further, Stiller helps ease the harsher parts of Roger's personality in a vulnerable performance. All psychological issues like these have a reason, and he maintains the anguish underneath.

Baumbach slowly drops the curtain that has surrounded Roger's outlook on life. There's a scene between him and his old flame that pushes him to realize that concentrating on what might have been is useless, especially when there's another party involved with feelings, memories, and perception of her own. Leigh isn't here much, but that scene is played just right, clearly sympathetic but also finished with the discussion before it began.

Then there's Ivan, who has overlooked and forgiven Roger for his arrogant denial of a change at a professional music career. He wants to be there for his friend, but Roger is so caught up in his own existence that it's not even a consideration. Ifans is also a strong presence, and the scene when the last straw arrives for their friendship is a painful one.

Gerwig's performance is the weakest of the group, simply from a lack of confidence, and that means Florence's influence on Roger, which becomes key once he starts to actually take a look at the here and now, is lost amidst the rest.

Baumbach's words and intentions are there, though, so the mantra that "Hurt people hurt people" still rings true. As a character study, Greenberg does well by its hurt and hurtful hero.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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