Monday, April 12, 2010

Movie Review: Greenberg

Greenberg *** ½
Directed By: Noah Baumbach.
Written By: Noah Baumbach & Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Starring: Ben Stiller (Roger Greenberg), Greta Gerwig (Florence Marr), Rhys Ifans (Ivan Schrank), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Beth), Chris Messina (Phillip Greenberg), Susan Traylor (Carol Greenberg), Blair Tefkin (Megan), Mark Duplass (Eric Beller), Jake Paltrow (Johno), Brie Larson (Sara), Juno Temple (Muriel), Merritt Wever (Gina), Zach Chassler (Marlon), Mina Badie (Peggy).

If I was ever to make a movie about a mild mannered guy who goes on a crazed shooting spree, I think I would cast Ben Stiller in the lead role. He so often makes such broad comedies – both good (Tropic Thunder) and bad (Night at the Museum), it is easy to forget that there is a real actor beneath the surface. Stiller’s latest film, Greenburg, functions in much the same way that Punch-Drunk Love did for Adam Sandler – that is a talented director (in this case Noah Baumbach) essentially deconstructing Stiller’s comic persona and showing us the deeply messed up person beneath it. It is easy to laugh at Stiller when he blows his top in a movie like Meet the Parents when he is simply yelling at an airline employee – much harder to laugh at him when he’s playing Roger Greenberg, a man just released from a mental ward because he snapped, and is yelling at the kind, sweet Florence (Greta Gerwig) simply because she told a story that went nowhere.

Greenberg has come to LA to stay at his brother’s house while he, and his family, take a vacation to Vietnam. Greenberg grew up in LA, but moved to New York years ago to try and follow his dream of being a musician. Things haven’t worked out, and he now makes a living as a carpenter. One day, he simply stopped functioning and had to go to a mental hospital for a while. He thinks that by getting away to LA for a while, he will be able to put it out of his head and move on. The problem is that LA is full of his past – his former band mates (including Ivan, played by Rhys Ifans who has been beaten down by life) who he screwed up a record deal for, and an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that he has never quite gotten over, and now maybe getting divorced. There is also Florence, his brothers assistant who he can call if he needs anything at the house. She is 15 years younger, pretty and lost in her life. She likes Greenberg – or most honestly, pities him, and that pity eventually turns into liking him. This despite the fact that he is prone to going into rages. He isn’t violent when he goes off on his tangents, but he is angry.

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Greenberg is another one of his comedy/dramas about smug people. His The Squid and the Whale was a great movie about two New York intellectuals getting divorced who drive their kids crazy. He followed that up with Margot at the Wedding, which was a brave, although not entirely successful examination of a sister relationship. Greenberg would fit right in with his other characters, who see themselves as somehow smarter than everyone else, despite their very obvious character flaws. The films of Baumbach are a study in awkwardness between the characters who don’t quite like each other, but are never quite able to say what is on their mind.

The movie is also about the generation gap between Greenberg and Florence, and near the end between Greenberg and his college age niece. It seems odd that Florence, out of college only four years, seems to have much more in common with Greenberg than she does with Greenberg’s niece. In a way, Greenberg is trying to recapture his past throughout the movie. He likes Florence, but doesn’t truly take any steps in their relationship until Leigh’s Beth rejects him (in perhaps the most painful scene in the movie, Greenberg asks her out, and she tries to downplay her rejection of him, but it’s still stinging). He then tries to latch onto Florence, who reminds him of Beth back when he screwed things up with her. When things with Florence seem not be going very well, Greenberg retreats further – doing coke and pit with his niece and her friends. But for Greenberg, he really cannot go home again no matter how hard he tries.

The movie is carried by the performances of Stiller and Gerwig – and to a lesser extent by Ifans and Leigh. Ifans still hangs out with Greenberg when he comes to town, even though in his passive aggressive way, he doesn’t really like him anymore. Ifans is quiet throughout the movie, and puts up with a lot of Greenberg’s crap because he is too scared to put up with him. Leigh is brilliant in her few scenes, where it becomes clear that her relationship with Greenberg meant almost nothing to her, while he has built it up to mythic proportions. Gerwig, moving up in the world after making quite an impression in some of the key “mumblecore” films (a movement that I am not a big fan of by the way), is an utter delight as Florence – who tries to keep a happy face on, and see the best in everyone, including Greenberg. But the film really does belong to Stiller. Like many comedic actors, like there is a terrific dramatic actor under the surface that Stiller rarely explores – but when he does, the result is some of their most interesting work. Greenberg is still a comedy – at times an incredibly funny one – but Stiller is asked to dig deeper into Greenberg than he has been asked in years (perhaps since The Royal Tenenbaums nearly a decade ago). The result is perhaps the best performance of Stiller’s career – and makes Greenberg a highlight of the year so far.

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