Friday, April 2, 2010


"Greenberg" is cut awkwardly, written awkwardly, and acted awkwardly in that "intentionally painful" way Lisa Schwarzbaum mentioned. That's meant as a compliment. I think it's one of the best films in a while. Noah Baumbach studies a character much like Paul Thomas Anderson does in "Punch-Drunk Love." Anderson built the film and its technicalities around Adam Sandler's Barry Egan, and now Baumbach shows Ben Stiller's Roger Greenberg by making the whole film an emanation of him. I tend to really go for these movies, since it shows a director understanding a character in a deeper sense than the usual.

And I'd definitely agree with the publication that cited that this is Stiller's best performance. Absolutely. He creates a totally multilayered character, worthy of a paragraph of notes. He's simultaneously impulsive and reserved (by the end of the film you can pretty much predict how he'll approach something), an alcoholic, and afraid of too much attention (but as my friend said, disastrously self-centered). His dialogue is a stream of attempted one-liners, sardonically written by Baumbach. Most of all, as Schwarzbaum et al. said, he's a "jerk" who can't say the right thing and who handles everything clumsily. For example, he uses a stop at Florence's (Greta Gerwig) house to convince her that he should just stay and then leads straight into sexual activity. And whenever Florence wants to show attention to him, he sends her away by rampantly insulting her.

This relationship is where the film really culminates, but the basic plot is that Philip and Carol Greenberg (Chris Messina and Susan Taylor) are going to Vietnam, so they get Roger to, as IMDB says, "housesit." The film takes place over the course of six weeks, when he tries to simultaneously do nothing (as somewhat of a statement) and to get with Florence, who's a fledgling singer as well as the "Greenberg assistant" (as IMDB says).

There are also Rhys Ifans (who many have cited as being "great), who's saddening as Ivan Schenk, a computer guy that Greenberg used to be in a band with. He's sort of kind of not really Greenberg's best friend, but Greenberg uses him as another person to call and to come over periodically to not ever really interact with. When Ivan offers him a birthday celebration at Musso and Frank's, he yells at him and runs out. He also yells at him when he comes into the film in the "climactic party scene" (as it has been called), which could be considered the saddest moment in the movie as a tack on to the scene where Greenberg lets loose, takes drugs, tries to stop people from feeding beer and pizza to the Greenberg family dog Mahler, and (as a friend said) finds something weird in the pool. And when Greenberg incessantly bothers Jennifer Jason Leigh's ex-girlfriend to lunch, it creates "the most painful of scenes" (as my friend and the Playlist said). Notice how (as my friend said) Greenberg neglects to mention the sickness of Beth's mother until he's been done talking about Mahler's sickness. Speaking of Mahler, to use a cliche, he's pretty much the thread that ties the movie together. He gets an auto-immune deficiency disorder and it plays out so that Greenberg and Florence are brought together because of it.

Okay. As been much said before, "this is not for everyone." I estimate a small percentage of the population will genuinely enjoy it. I think I can say I'm a part of that. If you like films such as "Rachel Getting Married" and "Punch-Drunk Love," imagine them combined and you have, to use a cliche, something along the lines of "Greenberg." I haven't seen any other Noah Baumbach, so I can't compare, but I guess I have some viewing I might want to accomplish. But his "Greenberg" is a film that I found consistently amusing, (as the Playlist said) "very well acted," and perfectly structured, with an interesting view of society. A-

A musing (ed. June 12, 2010): Is this film (the character Roger Greenberg in particular) too close to Saul Bellow's "Herzog" and Moses Herzog? I dunno. Is this film a knockoff? I'm wondering. I think this film is more interesting than the book, but I'm still a bit troubled. hmm.


Literary Dreamer said...

Yeah, this looks like one of the better films out this year.

aspergiansarah said...

Wow, at the first sentence, I was getting ready for a total trashing. I saw "The Squid & the Whale"- I guess I just wasn't interested in seeing vindictive and dysfunctional behavior amplified on that certain day.

Plus, I hated just about all of the characters- some more than others. Jesse Eisenberg was actually endearing in "Zombieland-" but here... he was so cruel to his not-so-perfect mom and well-meaning girlfriend I wanted him punched.

I've never considered Ben Stiller a dramatic actor- he was ludicrous in "There's Something About Mary," a very funny but not psychologically astute movie, but I think he was meant to be.

Nick Duval said...

Yeah, if you don't like a vindictive character, "Greenberg" might not be so fun. Stiller is awful to a lot of people. To quote the Ifans character, "Why can't we just talk about something nice?"

Stiller himself has been the object of a lot of attention for this performance. Some people think there could have been a better actor here. But I agree with Roger Ebert that he is the right actor for the role, because of his supreme deadpan and comedic instincts and also how he treats the dramatic parts. He at least should get a Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy, but maybe he could snag a Best Actor nod at the Oscars? I'm a dreamer and there's like no way that this will happen, but it would be cool. The only way that's possible is that 1) a lot of people see this movie and 2) a lot of people like this movie, and both are a little far-fetched, combine that with the March release date and you have only a miniscule outside chance.

--- Nick

Jozeph Dukö said...

wait, awkward but good?

Nick Duval said...


Awkward definitely can be good. Not usually fun to watch, but a good dynamic/technique.


Denise Powell said...

Nick, we watched this last night and enjoyed it a great deal; your review is dead-on. But now that you bring up the Bellow parallels I'm a little disturbed by it; Greenberg the man is a frigteningly similar update. Was there any allusions to Bellow in the film? I can't recall. But a simple nod of the head would do a great deal to dispel the derivative sense.