GREENBERG (Noah Baumbach, 2010)
In the dramedy GREENBERG Ben Stiller’s forty-year-old Roger Greenberg returns to California fresh off of a nervous breakdown and still nurturing his bitterness about pretty much everything. For six weeks Greenberg is to watch over his brother’s house, but doing nothing, save for the occasional carpentry, is his primary goal. He meets up with some old friends and begins a romance of a sort with his brother’s 25-year-old assistant Florence Greta Gerwig, but Greenberg can be so intent on being miserable and dragging others down with him that he’s in danger of pushing everyone away.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most recent films, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, have found humor and pain through the examination of hurt people hurting people. GREENBERG continues that thematic exploration with the study of a prickly and self-sabotaging title character who isn’t a charming rogue but, to put it bluntly, a jerk.
Greenberg feels his life has spun out of control and attempts to bring order to it, whether through rehearsing his behavior, writing complaint letters, or lashing out when he feels others may be hitting a nerve. Stiller often makes Greenberg’s hostility and rants funny, but his strongest work comes in exercising the character’s worst reflexes without trolling for sympathy. The performance requires looking beyond the surface to see a wounded soul who believes he can only feel better by making others miserable.
Florence spots the vulnerability Greenberg obscures with his gruff nature, which is why Gerwig’s performance is key to making the film successful. Florence and Greenberg are kindred spirits searching for the same answers. She just hasn’t reached the moment when disappointment and doubt transform into despair. In inhabiting Florence’s awkward and unguarded optimism, Gerwig lets the character demonstrate another way of dealing with life’s bruises without becoming a redemptive figure.
Baumbach’s writing and direction of these characters display more of a novelistic touch that can make them tough to like all the time, but the approach produces a deeply felt view of flawed individuals.