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Monday, March 29, 2010

Greenberg

Greenberg, like its title character, is frequently exasperating, but you hang in there because there seems to be a promise of something worthwhile, and its never boring. But, a day later, I'm not sure this film succeeds. Call it a thumbs sideways from me.

Ben Stiller, free of his comedy-film shtick, is Roger Greenberg. We are told he's just out of a mental hospital from a nervous breakdown, and was working as a carpenter in New York. He's come to Los Angeles to house-sit for his wealthy brother. He's determined to do "nothing," and catches up with old friends, particularly Ivan (Rhys Ifan). They were in a rock group together, but Stiller turned down a record deal and the band dissolved, their hope of fame and riches evaporated.

Though the film is called Greenberg, it opens from the point of view of Florence (Greta Gerwig), who is Stiller's brother's personal assistant. She's a few years out of college and seemingly adrift, both professionally and emotionally. Gerwig, a veteran of mumblecore pictures, is again playing a character who would be right at home in one of those kind of movies. She and Stiller form an odd relationship, in which she is open to his advances but he pulls back. He's also drawn to his old girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has moved on with her life and has kids, and has forgotten much of her relationship with Stiller.

The film was written and directed by Noah Baumbach (Leigh shares a story credit). I enjoyed his Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale (didn't catch Margot's Wedding) but I'm on the fence about Greenberg. Part of the problem is the nature of Greenberg himself. A main character in a film doesn't have to be warm and fuzzy, but we have to care about him, and at times I just wished he'd go away. As I mentioned, the film opens from Gerwig's point of view, and Greenberg appears, fully formed, giving her a list of items to buy: whiskey and ice cream sandwiches. In this way he never really develops into anything beyond a collection of tics and quirks, often cruel and self-centered. You have to wonder how he had any friends to begin with.

And then there's the huge crater in the middle of this film: Gerwig is a terrific actress, the real find in this movie and someone with a very bright future, but she's not good enough a performer to convince me of her interest in Stiller. She tells him, "You like me more than you think you do," which I believe, but when she tells him "I'm impressed by you," because he's not interested in personal success, I had a hard time believing it. Sure, I believe there are women out there who are drawn, for perverse reasons, to slackers, but what exactly do they talk about? We only see their halting stabs at sex, and one instance where Gerwig tells a story that sends Stiller fleeing from the room. I'm no authority on male physical characteristics, but it seems to me Stiller is not good-looking enough to smooth over his litany of neuroses. Gerwig's best friend tells her at one point that if she continues to drive him around (Stiller doesn't drive, another quirk) she'll never speak to her again. I could only agree.

That's not to say that Greenberg doesn't have its charms (both the film and the character). I liked a scene, late in the film, in which the 41-year-old Stiller is in the midst of a party of college students, and fueled by cocaine he breaks down the whole Generation Y: "You're mean...you're all ADD and carpal-tunnel. I hope I die before I meet you in a job interview." I liked Baumbach's shaggy-dog direction, and the film's ambivalence about L.A. Yeah, everybody's got a pool, but the opening shot is the thick haze of smog.

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