Greenberg (2010): Serio-Neurotic comedy, Starring Ben Stiller

Greenberg, Noah Baumbach’s new serio-neurotic comedy, is a step in the right direction after Margot at the Wedding, a vastly disappointing film, both artistically and commercially. Though it’s not as poignant or touching as Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” his best work so far, it offers some rewards, prime among which is Ben Stiller’s performance as a severely flawed character.

At its essence, “Greenberg” tells a peculiar, often funny, occasionally sharply observed story of two souls adrift in Los Angeles, trying to forge a meaningful connection, with all the necessary, awkward, even S&M steps involved. On many levels, “Greenberg” is a classic comedy of embarrassment and humiliation.

Too intimate—basically a one-character film—static, and verbose, “Greenberg,” which premiered to mixed response at the 2010 Berlin Film Fest, may be embraced by the more cerebral critics.  However, its commercial prospects are dim, unless Ben Stiller succeeds in bringing in his comedy fans to the picture. That Stiller plays a largely unsympathetic character for most of the text should prove to be an obstacle, too. (Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-nominated serio Jewish comedy, “Serious Man,” a far superior film than “Greenberg,” which was also distributed by Focus, barely grossed $10 million domestically).
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s real wife, is credited as one of the producers and co-writer of the story, and she plays a small part, but with such understated modest, that she barely registers. (It doesn’t help that Jason Leigh, a distinguished actress of the 1990s, has the weakest scenes in the picture).
Woody Allen has exerted an enormous influence on Baumbach’s earlier films, and the French New Wave (specifically Louis Malle) on his later ones. Combining elements of Woody Allen’s neurotic anti-hero with the heavy dialogue-driven elements of Eric Rohmer’s moral fables, “Greenberg” takes a quintessential Jewish type—New Yorker, of course–a misanthrope who’s a walking encyclopedia of anxieties, neuroses, and phobia—and transplants him into the alien context of Los Angeles. The encounter is a culture collision par excellence.
A star is born: The main reason to see “Greenberg” is not Ben Stuiller,” who has played similar parts before, but a new, gorgeous actress named Greta Gerwig, who has so far made a mark in a number of small indies. With some luck, Gerwig, boasting the attractive looks and skills of the young Meryl Streep (circa “Deer Hunter” and “Kramer Vs. Kramer”), vulnerability and photogeneity of the young Jessica Lange, should become a major player in Hollywood in the next decade.
With long blonde hair and piercing green eyes, Gerwig plays an ordinary woman, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), a twentysomething aspiring singer, who is struggling to find her place in the world. In the first, fast-moving, impressive reel, we get to know Florence and her busy but boring daily routines. Driving, shopping, picking up the laundry, making phone calls, walking out the dog, who will play a major part in the plot.
Florence works as a personal assistant to the yuppie and snobbish Greenberg family, which is about to go to Vietnam for several weeks. We get the impression that she begins and ends each day of her life the same way, tending to other people’s needs. In sharp contrast to the Greenbergs’ bustling life in their elegant Hollywood Hills home, Florence lives alone in a tiny studio apartment and sings at open-mike nights. Occasionally, she attends parties with her friends, gets high, and sleeps around in what’s a casual but meaningless sex.
When Phillip Greenberg (Chris Messina) takes his wife and children on an extended trip, Florence is suddenly left to her own devices. She makes the occasional visit to their home to check up on the family’s dog Mahler, and look in on Phillip’s brother Roger (Ben Stiller), who has come to L.A. to housesit.
Single and fortyish, Greenberg is intelligent, witty, sharp-tongued, and even more of a lost soul than Florence. A match made in heaven? Not quite, or not yet. At a crossroads in his life, Greenberg has been working as a carpenter in New York after an early career as a musician petered out. Through encounters with old friends, we learn what went wrong in a presumably promising musical career.
Greenberg’s motto is “I am trying to do nothing,” but he actually does a lot, mostly damages. You have met this type of the “professional complainer,” who bitches about everything and everybody. Greenberg’s most tangible projects include drafting letters, first on a yellow pad before printing them properly; in his spare time, he builds a doghouse for Mahler, a lazy dog that just sits and sleeps.
Roger tries to reconnect with friend and former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and old flame Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), but they’ve moved on with their lives while Greenberg has been stuck treading water. In trying to restart his life, Greenberg finds that times have changed and old friends aren’t necessarily still best friends.
After years of living in New York City, Greenberg doesn’t drive and finds himself stranded at his brother’s house. His vulnerability immediately endears him to Florence, who helps him navigate Los Angeles and take care of Mahler. What begins as a courtesy to her employer develops into a charmingly eccentric and unexpectedly significant connection. As Greenberg discovers there is only so much “nothing” you can do, the awkward beauty of what he builds with Florence starts to look more and more like a reason to be happy.
The great director of photography, Harris Savides, best known for his work for Gus Van Sant, gives the film a sharp, ultra-authentic look with a series of crisply realistic images, revealing a facet and lifestyle of Los Angeles seldom captured on screen.