Sometimes words just arrive on our lips without much thought and end up cutting a bloody swath through those we love most. The power of words to hurt is at the very core of Noah Baumbach’s latest venture. This is not a new subject for the writer/director, who has dealt with the metaphorical bloodletting of human relationships, especially within families, in previous films The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Margot at the Wedding (2007), both of which managed to be interesting, but were too self-involved to be engaging. Greenberg, with a transformed Ben Stiller in the title role, may well be Baumbach’s best film yet, and is certainly a worthy alternative to the higher profile Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which is also being released this week.
Stiller’s performance is a million miles from the comedy antics of the Night at the Museum franchise. In Greenberg he is a gaunt, stripped-down version of a comedian put out on a limb without any gags or one-liners. In fact, he manages to say the wrong thing at the wrong time on virtually every occasion, and while far from being sympathetic, remains a person in whom we can all see a little bit of ourselves. We are not Roger Greenberg, and we could never want to be Roger Greenberg, but there is a little bit of Roger Greenberg in all of us, and this gives the title character and the movie its appeal and its strength.
The Greenberg of the title is a man who has recently recovered from a mental breakdown and has relocated from New York to Los Angeles to do a little house and dog sitting for his brother, who is on vacation with the family. The brother, Philip Greenberg (Chris Messina), provides his personal assistant to help. The PA is Florence Marr, brilliantly realized by Greta Gerwig in a portrayal that is critical to the film’s success. While Stiller provides a showcase of what a skilled comic can do when deprived of all his props, Gerwig is an object lesson in what you can do with nothing more than a change of expression and a tone of voice. Her performance is so natural that it is easy to miss the subtlety, and this simplicity serves as the perfect foil to Stiller’s more highly orchestrated performance.
There are moments when Greenberg achieves an elusive combination of perceptiveness and wit that bring it to the same level as such classics as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). Stiller’s lead character has a more abrasive quality that may simply be the result of the harsher age in which Greenberg was made. Indeed, Allen’s recently released Whatever Works (2009) features a lead character (Boris, played by Larry David) of similarly abrasive temperament, and aims at similarly unsettling insights
into the spiritual abyss of
Gerwig is the perfect foil to Stiller’s wound-up performance, for while Greenberg is going nowhere with great determination — “I’m just doing nothing for a while” he says more than once in the film — Marr is uncertain were she might be going, but embarks on the journey with a sweetness and acceptance that verges on passivity. Greenberg’s anger at everything, his insistence on having an opinion and airing it to a largely indifferent world, is what appeals to her, but it is also what makes their relationship so rocky. This is where Baumbach’s skill with dialogue appears at the fore, in scenes of almost unspeakable psychological cruelty. The wounds heal, but the scares remain, itching and picked over as the characters reengage, unable to pull free from the centripetal forces created by their relationship.
Among the supporting cast, Rhys Ifans puts in one of his best performances ever as a former bandmate of Greenberg’s. He remains friends despite the fact that it was Greenberg who, in his usual demanding and hectoring way, managed to destroy the band’s hope of signing with a major label. The backstory about the band is sketched out deftly in a couple of short dialogues, and Baumbach is then able to weave it into the whole fabric of the story, so that it is an invisible presence constantly unsettling even the simplest conversations. This talent to make a little bit of story go a long way is part of the essential strength of Baumbach’s writing, and this, among his other technical skills, goes a long way in compensating for his sometimes preening intellectual self-regard.
Although Greenberg is shot through with an existential angst, it is also a remarkably beautiful film with characters who are sympathetic if not always appealing. Despite all their flaws, we want to know more about these people, even as they unwittingly damage each other through their words and actions. It brings to mind a line from the opening of Annie Hall: “[Life] is full of loneliness, misery, suffering, and unhappiness, and its all over much too quickly.”
BEN STILLER (ROGER GREENBERG), GRETA GERWIG (FLORENCE MARR), RHYS IFANS (IVAN SCHRANK), JENNIFER JASON LEIGH (BETH), BRIE LARSON (SARA), JUNO TEMPLE (MURIEL) AND CHRIS MESSINA (PHILLIP GREENBERG)
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