Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is a low key, intimate character study centering around Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller). Greenberg, as we quickly find out, was recently released from a mental health facility and is taking up to living in his brother’s house while he travels to Vietnam with his family. Greenberg soon sparks a relationship with his brother’s assistant Florence, and their relationship is pretty touch and go to say the least.
The relationship between Roger and Florence is actually quite palpable almost immediately. There is an awkward tension between them, but they’re both in the right frame of mind for a quick hook up it seems. Except while Roger wants to do nothing and be connected to no one, Florence seems to yearn for a constant connection with anyone and to fill her life doing task after task for Roger’s brother. Their lives overlap in a very unique and very true way.
Ben Stiller gives one of the finest performances of his career. It’s nothing like he’s done before, and is very subdued. Stiller’s main asset is great timing, and Greenberg himself has a good deal of fantastic lines. He’s a very moody guy who seems to focus on the minutia of life, and almost everything seems to bother him. It’s a very, very realistic character. He’s narcissistic and always in his own head. He rarely lets things go. But there is an air of humanity embedded in him that makes him a sympathetic character. He’s not tremendously “likable,” if that were a legitimate argument for disliking the film as whole, but he’s human. He’s obviously sorting through things in his life, and trying to embrace a new Roger Greenberg.
Greta Gerwig gives a nice breakout performance here as Florence. She, like Roger, is flawed and looking for something new. Except while Roger seems to be searching alone, Florence needs friends, her boss, and gentlemen suitors to always be around her and giving her guidance on what to do. The strong opinionated Greenberg obliges her, but not knowing what he himself wants means their relationship gets stuck in the mud pretty often, so much that Roger doesn’t even recognize it as a relationship.
Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale is a modern masterpiece that deals with divorce in a New York City family in the 1980s, so I continue to have high hopes for him. While his follow up Margot at the Wedding was nothing special (in fact, nothing particularly good), he rebounds quite nicely with Greenberg. He crafts very strong characters, and he never tries to disguise how flawed they are. They are almost immediately introduced that way. The journey is watching these characters deal with those flaws.
Baumbach writes some fabulous dialogue, and his films have a genuine conversational nature that I personally enjoy. The verbal reactions, the disagreements, the discussions, they each have a breath of reality to them. It’s less “actors reciting lines” and more organic. The characters make choices that aren’t completely out of the ordinary or unbelievable. They interact purely and have natural conversations. There are some unexpected developments in the story that again give the film a feeling of reality.
The only major complaint I have with Greenberg as a film is that it’s a bit mismareketed. It’s not some quirky comedy. There are a couple of laughs to be had, and the characters have their quirks, but it’s largely a character driven film that focuses on personal confusion and internal struggle more than comedy. While as whole the movie itself is just fine, it’s hard to adjust your expectations midstream when you’re anticipating something much, much different.
Greenberg is a moody film about a moody guy. Ben Stiller gives a terrific performance in the title role, and Noah Baumbach’s script gives us some great dialogue and two majorly flawed characters. The final scene is handled with such delicacy that any minor quibble you could have with Greenberg the person or the film almost washes away. Perhaps a fantastic final twenty minutes elevates an only above average film into being something a little bit better than it really is. But I finished with a really positive outlook on the film as a whole.
Score: 7.7/10 (Good)