- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Focus Features
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
uch like his 2007 film, “Margot at the Wedding,” writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest dramedy, “Greenberg,” features a lead protagonist who isn’t exactly the most likeable character in the world. In fact, he’s downright obnoxious, to the point that it’s hard to imagine anyone would want to be his friend, let alone spend a few hours with him. But that’s exactly what Baumbach is asking for with this grueling character study of a middle-aged man who’s seemingly given up on life. Unfortunately, while “Greenberg” does have a few things going for it (namely in its supporting cast and a house party scene in the final act that’s tonally different from the rest of the movie), the characters are so socially destructive that it’s difficult to care what happens to any of them.
Ben Stiller stars as Roger Greenberg, a failed musician turned carpenter who returns home to Los Angeles to housesit for his brother while he’s away on vacation. A closet neurotic with a mild case of OCD and a desire to "do nothing" (except write letters of complaint), Roger isn’t the easiest person to get along with, which would explain why all of his old friends are hesitant about letting him back into their lives. Desperate to keep himself occupied during his stay, Roger strikes up a relationship with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), despite the fact that neither seems to think it's a good idea. And though he might not be willing to admit it, she could be the one that finally gets Roger out of his 15-year funk.
That might sound like the plot of a quirky romantic comedy, but this is one relationship that seems doomed to end badly, even though the movie concludes on a somewhat hopeful note. Roger isn’t exactly a social butterfly, but apart from his various neuroses, he’s a pretty normal guy for having just checked out of a mental health facility. That doesn’t stop him from emotionally abusing Florence every chance he gets, however, which leads you to wonder why someone like her would even consider getting involved with him in the first place. Florence might be a bit of a lost soul herself, but is she really so desperate to be loved that she’s willing to put up with a self-absorbed asshole like Roger? In fact, while Roger can be abrasive at times, Florence is almost the more obnoxious of the two characters for allowing herself to get dragged into his messy life.
Greta Gerwig has a certain plain beauty to her that works well for the character, but she ultimately suffers in a role that operates more as an accessory to Ben Stiller than a fully developed person. Stiller, meanwhile, just isn’t a good enough dramatic actor to make his character engaging. Nicole Kidman could get away with playing that kind of social monster in “Margot at the Wedding” because she has the screen presence to do so, but Stiller only makes Roger even more unlikeable than he should be. Thankfully, the supporting cast isn’t as bad, and along with a solid performance by Rhys Ifans as Roger’s only friend, there are also some memorable cameos by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mark Duplass. It’s hardly enough to make “Greenberg” the kind of film you’d hoped it would be, because even though there are a few laughs sprinkled throughout, it’s mostly all doom and gloom. Fans of Baumbach have come to expect that from him lately, but is it so much to ask for a good story and some likeable characters as well?
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Universal’s Blu-ray release of “Greenberg” features the kind of self-serving bonus material that makes you wonder why the studio even bothered. There are three extras in all totaling a whopping seven minutes, including a “behind the scenes” featurette that is essentially just the theatrical trailer infused with a few cast interviews, a brief look at filming in Los Angeles, and a minute-long interview with director Noah Baumbach about crafting a cinematic character study that’s structured like a novel. What a waste.