Greetings again from the darkness. Warning: this is one of the artsy-fartsy type movies that bore many, but energize me. Noah Baumbach wrote and directed the excellent The Squid and the Whale, and it is with Greenberg that he really makes a statement as an independent filmmaker to anticipate. The second gem is always the most elusive. That said, I am not sure I can recommend this movie to very many people, despite all the good things I am about to write.
This is the first Ben Stiller role that actually seems to fit him. His typical role is as a punchline. Here, as Greenberg, he is not one bit likable. He plays a guy who recently suffered a nervous breakdown and is now house-sitting for his rich brother, who is on a family vacation in Vietnam. Throughout the movie, Greenberg states he is concentrating on doing “nothing” right now. Of course, that is his defense mechanism for being unable to connect or communicate with any real person. Yes, that sounds bleak … and it is. Yet, it is also fascinating and thought-provoking.
Despite Stiller’s strong turn, Greta Gerwig (as Florence) proves to be the heart of the story. She is the family assistant to Greenberg’s brother and finds herself oddly attracted to Greenberg’s vulnerable state. This is my first exposure to Ms. Gerwig and I find her fascinating as an actress. She has a natural openness on-screen and is certainly no glamour-gal. Instead she comes across as a very real 25-year-old trying to make sense of life – especially her own.
In addition to Ms. Gerwig, Rhys Ifans provides outstanding support work as Greenberg’s long ago band mate. This is the polar opposite of Ifan’s character in The Boat that Rocked as here is just a guy putting together a grown up life for himself. He struggles with the adjustment, but accurately depicts how our daily choices can make or break us.
I am not sure whether to categorize this as a character study or just an exquisitely written series of scenes that hit the nail on the head. One of the best scenes of the film is when Stiller meets up with Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach’s real life wife) and she immediately rebuffs his reconciliation attempts. They had been a couple briefly 15 years ago and she has obviously moved on, while he has not. Excellent film-making.
The best way I can describe Greenberg the character is that he is a compilation of the dark thoughts that we all experience from time to time … a desire to do nothing, wanting to be blunt and direct, dreams of recapturing the magic of youth, and of course, writing complaint letters for everything wrong in the world. Obviously, most of us spend very little real time on these things, but that is the Greenberg character. Let’s keep an eye on Mr. Baumbach – he may just be the real deal.