Universal // 2010 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 14th, 2010
Ben Still is Greenberg.
The trailer for director Noah Baumbach's Greenberg made the movie look like faux Woody Allen filtered through the too-cute-by-half sensibilities of indie sleeper hits Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. It emphasized cynical little one-liners in which the title character observes that life is wasted on people or tells a group of Millennial Gen partiers that he hopes to die before having to face any of them in a job interview. In developing the movie's promotional materials, I'm sure Focus Features was chasing after the unexpected financial success that Little Miss Sunshine and Juno fell ass-backwards into, but they did Greenberg a gross disservice. It isn't a quirk-for-quirk's-sake formula comedy attempting to hide its banal plot behind heaps of hipster dialogue and a jangly indie music soundtrack. It's a throwback character study vaguely reminiscent of the work of Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail). It has a genuine emotional core and rides along on often surprising and sometimes disturbing character moments rather than dramatic turns of plot. As with Baumbach's previous directorial efforts (Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale) as well as his writing collaborations with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox), structurally and narratively, Greenberg often feels more literary than cinematic. A literary vibe isn't necessarily an asset to a movie, but it works in this instance.
Greenberg's story, such as it is, follows the low-key adventures of Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder), a 40-year-old washed-up musician recently released from a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown. Greenberg agrees to a six-week stint house-sitting for his wealthy brother in Hollywood, who is taking a long vacation to Vietnam. In the midst of something of a midlife crisis, Greenberg is determined to do nothing during his time in California (with the exception of writing angry letters to the New York Times, Starbucks, and any other corporation that annoys him). His plans are interrupted when he runs into a former bandmate (Rhys Ifans, Notting Hill) and an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Machinist) with their own problems, has to manage his brother's dog's auto-immune deficiency, and strikes up a tentative affair with Florence (Greta Gerwig, LOL), his brother's young assistant.
Those who've grown tired of Ben Stiller's broad comedy in the likes of Zoolander and Tropic Thunder may be pleasantly surprised by his work in Greenberg. He so thoroughly immerses himself in the character that there isn't a hint of the manic, jokey excess that can sometimes make large doses of Stiller difficult to bear. Roger Greenberg is a difficult character play, an obsessive narcissist who is sometimes needlessly cruel to friends and family. He's a neurotic who, despite years of therapy, can be aggravatingly lacking in self-awareness and prone to regurgitating the psycho-babble he's been fed as cheap (and mostly incorrect) analysis of the faults of others. He's a guy with little empathy and no clue as to how he sabotages his own relationships. He's a schmuck. Lazy writing by Baumbach or a mediocre performance by Stiller could easily have reduced Roger Greenberg to a cliché, a curmudgeon who spews one caustic one-liner after another. Instead, the director and actor present a man whose pain and confusion feel quite real. Because Stiller doesn't play the character for laughs, we come to want Greenberg to succeed in finding love, meaning, and even a little happiness. And the narrative frustration is palpable when he undermines his own efforts.
Stiller perfectly modulates the movie's comic moments, never crossing the line into broad gags or jokey rhythms. The centerpiece of the film's humor is a long sequence in which a party of twentysomethings invade Greenberg's brother's house and our middle-aged hero relieves his youth by indulging in a mix of anti-depressants, cocaine, and weed, and then manically tries to turn his young party-mates on to the charms of Duran Duran. Stiller makes no obvious choices (there's no stumbling around or being zany) and never entirely lets us lose sight of the sadness and neurosis that define Roger Greenberg. Similarly, his relationship with Florence amounts to a series of closely-observed moments, perfectly played by Stiller. On the one hand, he's drawn to her unostentatious beauty and free spirit, but struggles with an understated fear of her progressive sexual mores and immersion in a youth culture that is foreign to him. Which brings us back to one of the misleading moments in the movie's trailer: When Greenberg berates his twentysomething party pals for being warped by the use of technology as a replacement for human interaction and for having parents who were overly concerned with nurturing their self-esteem, he isn't acting as a mouthpiece for Baumbach's pithy critique of Millennials; he's indirectly probing these kids for information about Florence, a young woman with whom he feels a connection despite his struggles to love and accept her as she is. The glimmer of hope offered by Baumbach is that Greenberg's effort to understand Florence begins to open his eyes to how poorly he's treated his friends and family over the years. Whether the movie ends with a glimmer of hope or a bleak assertion that people never truly change is entirely up to the individual viewer.
Universal serves up Baumbach's fine character study in a DVD with few frills. Greenberg is presented in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen displays. Baumbach shot the movie conventionally and avoided over-the-top computer-enhanced color timing. The result is a smooth, clean image with a tight grain pattern and colors that are so natural they appear muted compared to the hyper-saturated excesses in many modern productions. Audio is presented in a Dolby 5.1 mix that is more than enough to handle the movie's dialogue-heavy track. French and Spanish dubs are also offered, both in Dolby 5.1. Subtitle options include French and Spanish. There are also English captions for the deaf and hearing-impaired.
The only extras are three lightweight featurettes, "A Behind the Scenes Look at Greenberg," "Greenberg Loves Los Angeles," and "Noah Baumbach Takes a Novel Approach." None runs more than three minutes in length, or provides much insight into the film.
Greenberg is a rare little gem: an indie comedy that wastes no effort congratulating itself for its own cleverness. Neither silly nor morose, it is a genuine tragicomic character study -- the sort of movie that was a common product of Hollywood throughout the 1970s, but is all too rare these days.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R