Friday, April 2, 2010

"Greenberg" Review

This would actually make a great companion review for "City Island," because both films live or die by their characters, and especially in comparison, Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" has great ones. As a Ben Stiller fan, I'll admit upfront he does carry a certain stigma of silliness that made me wonder if he was right for the role, but I was pleasantly surprised by how ill-founded my fears turned out to be. Stiller's understated take on the narcissistic title character is perfect.

And it's a performance that fits the film snugly; both are quiet, real, and subtly funny. Greenberg, first name Roger, is a New York carpenter by trade who, after a vague nervous breakdown before the film's outset, spends a few weeks house-sitting for his brother in their Californian hometown. He takes the opportunity to reach for old friendships, muse on the band he once broke up, and stab at a relationship with his brother’s self-deprecating assistant (Greta Gerwig), all with a pronounced anti-sociality. Stiller plays Greenberg as a misanthropic Larry David type that will likely divide audiences.

Of course, you won't get as much out of the film if you hate his guts, but I think Baumbach does an admirable job of playing Greenberg down the middle. If he comes off dislikable, he's intentionally so, and if we find his overinflated ego and communicative hang-ups even slightly endearing, it makes the film's reserved climax that much more meaningful. Mind you, the character doesn't undergo a profound, hundred and eighty degree change over the course of the film, which again may leave some cold, but it lends "Greenberg" an uncommon authenticity.

Mostly, Stiller's character just passes blame, misdirects criticism, picks at wounds, and proudly proclaims his life choice "to do nothing for a while," content to ignore his immaturity as even his one-time slacker buddies become career men and parents. Aging is the film's central theme, and Greenberg is caught in a time warp. His rash decision-making and selective memory later leads to an awkward date with an ex, and a college party he simultaneously participates in and ridicules. It's pathetic, and you'll either appreciate that irony or find him intolerable.

If I have a complaint, it's that the film is sometimes too much like the character: aimless and distant, though never for very long. It's tough to justify even a mild boredom, but I think the story probably benefits from the occasionally itchy sedentary scene; for better or worse, it wrings us closer to the idea of Greenberg, and underscores the juxtaposition of his impulsiveness in the third act. It may not make for the most exhilarating cinema, but it's hard for me to shake the notion that "Greenberg" is exactly the film it's supposed to be. It's pretty straightforward, and there doesn't feel like very much room for debate beyond a gut reaction.

Like I said, it lives and dies by its characters, and they'll either resonate for you or they won't. For me they absolutely do, and although there are probably a hundred films like it, Baumbach finds a way to make "Greenberg" feel fresh, significant, and genuinely funny, which is more than I can say for any of the year's purported "comedies." You know what, never mind "City Island," maybe this is the film you should see instead of "Hot Tub Time Machine."


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