“Greenberg” is the latest film written and directed by Noah Baumbach. He wrote and directed “The Squid and the Whale” in 2005, a film I loved, as well as “Margot and the Wedding” in 2007, which I have not seen. His latest film continues a theme of dysfunctional yuppie characters.
The setup — Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a carpenter from NYC who recently checked out of psychiatric care, crashes at his wealthy brother Phillip’s Hollywood property while Philip and his family are away on a multi-month vacation in Vietnam. The brother’s assistant Florence (played by the beautiful Greta Gerwig) is made available should Greenberg need anything. He calls Florence up to request food purchases and to drive him around town (he doesn’t drive anymore).
One night early on during his stay he asks her out for drinks, and while driving around town they decide instead to just drink at her apartment, which leads to the quickest round-the-bases I’ve witnessed in a long time. Florence delivers a hysterical off-hand remark about trains while Greenberg is going down on her.
I will be honest, I do not enjoy most of the films in which Ben Stiller has the lead role, but in this film he is strangely endearing, in the way you might love a constantly misbehaving puppy. Greenberg… now here’s a dude who never got over college. Back then he was in a band, and his refusal of the terms to a record contract costs them their One Big Chance. Some of his bandmates are still pissed at his about that, though one of them, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), has put it behind him.
Ivan is who Greenberg spends most of his time with aside from Florence. Greenberg thinks he talks to Ivan more often than he really does, and Ivan wishes they spent more time talking about more important things in their lives rather than constantly rehashing the past. He chastises Greenberg for never making any effort to know Ivan’s son Victor.
Florence is adrift like Greenberg and seems interested in Greenberg because he’s like her and unlike the other guys she’s been with, and shows some modicum of interest in her. Greenberg doesn’t deserve her or Ivan’s friendship, but he gets it anyway because they’re too kind to turn their backs on him.
Greenberg is trapped in his college mindset, believing he has to avoid all commitments in order to be truly free. He still sees himself as the musician he was back in college and thinks there’s a chance for his band, to reunite and write music again. He can’t see that his bandmates, including Ivan, have moved on with their lives. They’ve grown up, gotten married, have kids and careers. Greenberg has been treading water since college, working odd jobs as a carpenter.
Between Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening I watched the movie two times. I watched it the second time not so much to watch Ben Stiller, although he is exceptionally good in his role, but for Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans. I’d love to see a movie with just those two talking over dinner and wandering around town together.
I realized, during the second viewing, that this movie made a better impression the second time around. It’s one of those movies you don’t think highly of until it’s over and you have some time to think about it. I realized I could relate to a number of scenes, having had some of those exact same experiences and conversations with my own friends (and no, I am not equating myself to Greenberg, though some of the other characters remind me of people I know).
The movie also reminded me of “Sideways”, one of my favorite comedies, in the way that the lead character, after so many stumbles and missteps, just might find success. I was kinda rooting for Greenberg at the end, even though he didn’t deserve it. This is a weird way to recommend a film, but take my word for it, this is one of the funnier and more introspective films of 2010.