Universal // 2010 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 8th, 2010
He's got a lot on his mind.
"Life is wasted on people."
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller, Night at the Museum) has just been released from a mental institution, where he had been spending time recovering from a recent breakdown. His brother Jimmy (Chris Messina, Julie and Julia) has decided to take his family on a vacation to Vietnam, so Roger is house-sitting Jimmy's home for a few weeks. While he's back in town, he decides to spend some time with his pal Ivan (Rhys Ifans, Pirate Radio), an old friend with whom he has a long and complicated history.
Roger also encounters Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig, Hannah Takes the Stairs), Jimmy's personal assistant. Florence has been instructed to help Roger out should he need assistance of any sort. Roger quickly takes advantage of this situation, asking Florence to run errands and drive him to various places. Quickly and unexpectedly, the two make an awkward stab at a romantic relationship and spend a good deal of time attempting to determine whether they're on or off or...whatever.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach makes little movies about the lives of self-absorbed people. That's generally not the sort of thing that tends to stir up much of a fuss in the world of cinema. On the contrary, it's often difficult to get people to pay any attention to small, character-driven films like that. Even so, Baumbach's films have a way of drawing out particularly strong feelings in viewers. Like his frequent collaborator Wes Anderson, Baumbach tends to be one of those directors who inspires either endless praise and admiration or intense derision. I've heard his emotionally brutal The Squid and the Whale described as one of the best films of the 21st Century to date and as one of the most repulsively insulated and elitist bits of snobbery committed to film.
Greenberg is less likely to generate such violent reactions from viewers, as it represents a gentler, more amiable Baumbach despite its inevitable cringe-inducing moments. While it may not seem like much on the surface (the movie could basically be described as, "unpleasant person encounters pleasant person; much awkwardness ensues"), the film walks a very fine line and manages to pull off an impressive feat. It gives us a very unlikable main character, but not so unlikable that we become opposed to the idea of his finding redemption. It sports an array of indie-movie quirks (the family vacationing in Vietnam, the casual celebration of kitsch, the conversation about Gung Ho), but makes them feel like organic parts of the film's world rather than clumsily inserted attempts at hipness (see Juno, a good film damaged by this very problem). It is neither an easily digestible mainstream film nor a defiantly anti-mainstream bit of contrarianism. The film's primary goal is to seek truth (emotional and otherwise), and by looking towards that goal at all times, Greenberg succeeds in creating an involving and satisfying experience.
I've long had mixed feelings about Ben Stiller, whose most popular films tend to be his least interesting. Stiller can be masterful in smaller, stranger, more neurotic roles -- witness his turn as the bitter son in The Royal Tenenbaums, or his painfully funny role in Flirting with Disaster -- but in mainstream comedy his angst often seems forced and unamusing. Stiller has some funny moments in Greenberg, but the character is never played for laughs. This is a dark, mean-spirited turn from the actor, as Roger seems unpleasant most of the time and savage on occasion. I didn't find myself laughing aloud very often, but that's only because the funny moments were often stifled by the very uncomfortable situations in which they turn up. This man is so wrapped up in his own stew of self-satisfaction and self-loathing that we can't possibly hope for him to find freedom anytime soon...but maybe a willingness to be honest with himself for a change is attainable.
The presence of Florence accentuates what a mean person Roger can be...both to the audience and to Roger. As played by Greta Gerwig, Florence is a young woman who is nice to a fault. When Greenberg greedily and inexplicably begins to engage in clumsy foreplay with her on their first encounter, she politely goes along with it up until he hits third base or so. "Hey, maybe we should slow this down a bit," she offers quietly. He treats her badly on just about every occasion, and then finds a way to convince himself that he is the one who has been wounded. For whatever reason, Florence continues to put up with this. This causes Roger to reflect on his actions, maybe because he's not used to people continuing to bother with him.
It's also telling that Roger's best friend is Ivan, who will also go a long way to prevent conflict and make Greenberg feel as if his absurd behavior is justified. Ifans is an actor who tends to take on colorful characters that live life with lusty abandon; it's interesting to see him tackling the part of a man who seemingly once lived such a life and is now attempting to maintain some form of inner peace at all costs. There's also a solid turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach's wife, who is also a co-producer and co-writer of the story), who does a lot with a pair of brief but essential scenes.
While Wes Anderson's films benefit tremendously from the hi-def format, Baumbach's more visually flat efforts don't quite make as big an impression. Greenberg is pretty dull visually, but the aesthetic is suited to the characters and the story (given the presence of Gerwig and Mark Duplass, the film has one foot firmly planted in the world of mumblecore). Detail is solid enough throughout, flesh tones are warm and accurate, blacks are reasonably deep and shading is good. The audio gets the job done, as it's mostly a dialogue-heavy mix with occasional moments that allow the soundtrack to take over. The song selections are spot-on; an appealing mix of the familiar and the fresh. Sound design is minimal for the most part, with a couple of key exceptions (party scenes tend to be pretty busy). Extras are limited to three absurdly brief featurettes: "A Behind the Scenes Look at Greenberg" (3 minutes), "Greenberg Loves Los Angeles" (2 minutes) and "Noah Baumbach Takes a Novel Approach" (2 minutes). Blah.
The central character can be awfully difficult to care about at times, so some viewers may have trouble finding any sort of emotional investment in his story.
Thoughtful and truthful, Greenberg lacks the raw power of The Squid and the Whale but is a more approachable outing from Baumbach. The Blu-ray release is rather mediocre, but the film is worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R