Dir: Noah Baumbach

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Focus Features

95 Minutes

“Is Armond White here?” asked one particularly witty critic as he entered our press screening, referencing the minor controversy where the New York Press critic may or may not had been banned from seeing Greenberg, the latest film by Noah Baumbach, for past comments such as wishing the filmmaker’s mother had aborted him to calling the director of The Squid and the Whale an “asshole.” The typically restrained group, probably more afraid of responding incorrectly to the witty critic’s query and losing face than thinking the controversy funny, laughed nervously. It seemed like the Baumbach movie began before the lights even dimmed.

The last we saw Baumbach was 2007’s Margot at the Wedding, a bleak, almost nihilistic film starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black. Though his prior film, The Squid and the Whale looked squirmy intellectual angst square in the beak, a dark pallor hung over Margot, making it impossible to cheer for anyone. However, if a movie was ever made about a grown-up Walt Berkman (the protagonist from Squid) it would be Greenberg.

Just before the movie began, another critic behind me opined, “Ninety minutes of Ben Stiller is 89 minutes too much.” I hate to say it, but I agree. Although he gave a fine turn nine years in The Royal Tenenbaums, Stiller’s career since has placed him in jackass comedies like Meet the Fockers and big budget shit like Night at the Museum. Much like Adam Sandler before Punch-Drunk Love, Stiller was a comedic actor who no longer starred in funny movies and needed a change of direction. He can thank Baumbach for giving him one.

Roger Greenberg (Stiller) is a New York carpenter, recently out of a mental institution, who has come to stay at his brother’s home while his rich sibling and family are away on vacation in Vietnam. Greenberg arrives armed with a plan to “do nothing” besides write angry letters to corporations and get involved with his brother’s assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), an equally lost soul. While in town, Greenberg also tries to re-connect with old friends Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Eric (Mark Duplass), former members of a band Greenberg fronted but then destroyed upon receiving a record contract offer.

While what’s eating Greenberg is never explicitly mentioned, despite the passing of his mother, Stiller inhabits the character’s ticks and foibles with a full-fleshed ferocity. His Greenberg is indecisive, impulsive and insensitive. In one of the most uncomfortable scenes of the year so far, he kisses Florence and a moment later is engaged in what could be the most awkward session of cunnilingus ever portrayed on screen. One thing is clear, his Greenberg is neither emotionally or psychologically steady and somehow Florence begins to fall for this damaged guest.

There is something about Greenberg that is similar to Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall from As Good as it Gets. Although he lacks the OCD rituals, Greenberg is prone to making insensitive comments, suffers from mood swings and insecurity. But, like Udall, Greenberg has a strong desire to change, a redemption that Baumbach gradually ushers his character towards.

However, despite Stiller’s star appeal, Greenberg belongs to Gerwig, who gives a strong and vulnerable performance as a wounded soul who is unable to put up boundaries for herself. As her involvement with Greenberg eventually leads to her contemplate quitting her job (which is essentially as man-servant to the richer older brother), Florence must somehow learn to assert herself or fall down Greenberg’s rabbit hole of neurosis.

Although the film sometimes drags (especially for one with a 90 minute run time), Baumbach and Stiller both score a mutual coup with Greenberg. Like the director’s other work, it’s a twitchy, uncomfortable look at wounded souls, but it is also his best film to date. Much like Sandler’s Barry Egan, Greenberg is a man trying to grow up and having the damnedest time doing it.

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