Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” is a true study in character. It follows out of work New Yorker Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) as he travels back to his native L.A. to house sit for his more successful, younger brother Phillip. Attempting to fill his time, Roger builds a doghouse for the family’s dog Mahler, writes complaint letters to big businesses, reestablishes contact with old friends and strikes up an ambiguously confusing, on/off relationship with his brother’s assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig).
“Greenberg” is about a man in his 40s who still has no idea who he is as a person. The film explores relationships, individual identity, life responsibilities and growing up through Roger, who has been working as a carpenter in New York but, in an attempt “to do nothing for awhile,” has since taken a leave of absence. As Roger digs up remnants of his past life in California, he goes down a rabbit hole of self-reflection, ultimately leaving him in the face of some very difficult truths.
Stiller creates a truly unique and complete character with Roger Greenberg. His willingness to embody such a flawed and unlikable character is a testament to his dedication to the craft. His ability to hold Roger with such an air of ignorance will have you cracking up laughing while at the same time holding your breath. He is tragically funny during the party sequence of the film where, after ingesting a range of different substances, he decides to share his thoughts on the younger generation that surrounds him. “There’s a confidence in you guys that’s horrifying,” he tells them. “…I hope I die before I end up meeting one of you in a job interview.”
Gerwig also gives a noteworthy performance as the awkward and goofy, yet attractive and sweet, Florence. Her approach to the role reinforces her character’s simplicity and delicate nature, sneaking up expertly on her audience’s sympathies. The scene of her drinking and dancing to Paul and Linda McCartney’s “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey” will most definitely leave a lasting impression. Rhys Ifans also turns in an understated performance of Ivan Schrank, Roger’s calm, content old buddy and former bandmate. The film is rounded out with smaller performances by Mark Duplass, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Juno Temple and Jennifer Jason Leigh, all who do their part to further define the world of “Greenberg.”
The screenplay for “Greenberg” was expertly written by Baumbach (also the film’s director), based upon the story co-written by himself and the above-mentioned Leigh. The characters are complicated and frequently contradictory, making them intriguing and their motivations oftentimes difficult to decipher. They will annoy you, confuse you and their words will constantly have you laughing. Cinematographer Harris Savides’ does a great job of capturing life in L.A. and, combined with James Murphy’s (LCD Soundsystem) ever-present and downplayed score, it paints a one-of-a-kind picture of a man drifting in an unfamiliar world. Baumbach’s “Greenberg” is an excellent film, with interesting characters that will surprise and amuse you as they deliver one great line after another after another.