For director Noah Baumbach, polarizing audiences is nothing new. While many find his films (Margot at the Wedding, The Squid and the Whale) well constructed, a common complaint is that they are depressing, and the characters are too unlikable. The fact that Baumbach’s movies elicit such strong reactions from audience members means he is doing something right. The guy is damn good at peeling back the layers and exposing the not-so- pretty underbelly of human nature.
If you go expecting a light-hearted comedy, you will undoubtedly be disappointed, but Greenberg is one of the finest character studies I’ve witnessed. Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a caustic, neurotic, insecure, and bitter 40-something who has just gotten out of a stint in a mental hospital. He travels to California to house-sit for his wealthy brother, and is given instructions as well as the phone number of his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig).
Ben Stiller does a bang-up job as Greenberg, and I hope he is remembered come Oscar time next year. He is one of the most grating characters you will ever see in a movie, a true misanthrope. He gets pissed when people clap and laugh in a restaurant (It’s superfluous, according to him), he has a sense of entitlement and superiority, and he treats everyone like crap. He spends his spare time writing letters of complaint to Starbucks, the airline, Mayor Bloomberg, and whoever else pisses him off.
Yet somehow, he is relatable. He is obviously a broken soul who can’t deal as a member of society, and I could appreciate the daily struggle and the unhappiness that weighs like an albatross around his neck. He’s so frightened and unsure. When people ask what he is up to, he replies, “I’m just really trying to not do anything right now.”
I get that, it’s a lot easier than admitting you are an utter failure. If you never try, you can’t fail. He’s real, and while I didn’t like him, I found him fascinating, and I applaud Baumbach for writing such a complicated character.
Florence comes by the house to pick up her paycheck, and Roger asks her out. Their first “date” is one of the most uncomfortable things I have sat through in a theater. Roger suggests they just stay at her place instead of go out, and promptly proceeds to try to have sex with her. Shockingly, she goes along with it, at first.
Florence is an aimless 25 year old, who is used to having casual sex, and obviously has low-self esteem. I felt more outraged by Roger’s actions than her character did, I just wanted to shake Florence and say, “Don’t let him do that! Respect yourself.”
Sure, I wish that Florence had been a stronger female character, but the truth is, I’ve known a lot of Florences in my life, and Gerwig nailed it. It’s a completely realistic portrayal of a single 25 year-old who has not yet earned the self-assurance of someone who has been around a little longer. She still has not grown up completely. Once again, a real character, not a movie character.
Florence also seems to be the one person on earth who thinks that there is some good in Roger. It’s not really sweet, though. It seems like she just continually makes excuses for Greenberg’s verbal abuse. It’s rather pathetic, and reminds you of all those women who always stay with their partner, convinced that they will be able to change their drinking, drugs, philandering, or abuse. Hate to sound like a broken record, but again, it’s real stuff.
Roger eventually comes to realize that he does have true feelings for Florence, obviously something he is not familiar with. How he reconciles that fact plays out throughout the rest of the movie. Jennifer Jason-Leigh (who is married to Baumbach) makes a brief appearance as Roger’s old girlfriend, who clearly doesn’t remember their relationship the same way that Roger remembers it. She also co-wrote the story with her husband.
Rhys Ifans is great as Ivan, one of Roger’s only friends, who finally calls him out on his behavior. Roger and Ivan were in a band twenty years ago and Roger blew their one shot at a record deal. Ivan steadfastly remained by his side, but has finally had it with Roger’s self absorbed behavior. He sadly notes that it would have been nice if Roger had made any sort of effort to get to know Ivan’s son. Roger doesn’t even know his name.
Since the movie plays like a voyeuristic look into these characters’ lives, it does end open-ended and abruptly. I felt that the movie was a bit long at almost a two hour running time, but that is a minor quibble.
I recognize that most of the time we go to the movies to be entertained, but I find it exhilarating to think, and feel, on occasion. I wouldn’t want to see a movie like this every day, but far from depressing me, these types of movies make me feel alive, and grateful for my own friends, family and lifestyle. I find them oddly reassuring.