Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot At the Wedding) is no stranger to awkward family dynamics; for him, it’s well-tread territory that he’s obviously and contradictorily comfortable exploring in his cinema. Which, for some, might make his latest effort, Greenberg, feel somewhat effortless and even slight considering the source. After all, he’s done it all before– he’s visited this familiar ground and these familiar characters across the span of his career, showing little interest in diverging from the focus themes of his films. But that’s exactly why a film like Greenberg sings. Baumbach knows his characters and their stories inside and out and he knows how to make them palatable to us, even in their most inelegant and oafish moments.
Greenberg follows Ben Stiller in the role of the eponymous maladjusted 40-something man who, having recovered from a nervous breakdown, relocates himself from New York to Los Angeles to house-sit for his vacationing brother (Chris Messina, mostly yelling at Stiller over the phone). Ambivalent about plot and narrative, the film runs on character instead of forward momentum generated by the story, appropriate enough for a picture about a man whose ultimate goal is to “do nothing” with the unplanned life he’s living; conflicts arise as he comes to face his former bandmates (Mark Duplass and Rhys Ifans) and reconcile with them over a record deal he botched with them over a decade previous, and as he commences a sweet, clumsy, and occasionally unhealthy relationship with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s personal assistant. In other words, Greenberg is the kind of film many will claim is about nothing explicitly by virtue of being character-driven, but this is simply not true– indeed, Greenberg is a very honest movie about people whose circumstances and emotions feel incredibly real. What occurs in this movie can hardly be described as “nothing”.
The trick is that Greenberg very easily could be completely empty and devoid of substance. It could have absolutely nothing to say. But Baumbach is a masterful observer of human behavior and emotion, and he’s adept at making the ebb and flow of a person’s nature into something that can speak volumes. Greenberg himself may be one of his most compelling foci yet, a man who seems utterly unfit to operate in the same world we all reside in by his own designs and yet feels sympathetic despite his less admirable qualities (which range from dismissive social ineptness to sudden fits of rage over the seemingly innocuous) and his more unfortunate decisions. Roger Greenberg is a swirling cauldron of neuroses and dysfunction, and his self-sabotaging/destructive behavior strikes a balance between dark humor and mental agony. If nothing else, Baumbach’s film and Stiller’s work as its lead, antithetical to the Hollywood leading man ideal, loudly proclaim the simple truth that one doesn’t have to be likable to be a protagonist.
But more than that, Greenberg is about growing up, or, maybe more precisely, growing older. Roger either refuses to act his age or lacks the capacity to do so; mentally he’s still stuck in his 20’s, a time when his impetuous and obnoxious behavior might have been at least understandable, though still unacceptable. Roger stands in stark contrast to his friends, most of all his ex-band member Ivan (Ifans) and ex-girlfriend Beth. Neither of them have totally remade themselves– Ivan, in his 40s and a proud dad, dresses, looks, and sounds far, far more cool than I ever have or will– but they’ve at least made a semblance of peace with who they were and have come to embrace the roles that they fill now. So while Greenberg isn’t solely about the emotional journey of its titular character, its foremost interest lies in answering the question of whether Roger can succeed in growing as a human being in the same way that his foils have.
Ultimately, we wish the best for him no matter how awfully he behaves and how poorly he treats his acquaintances, and credit for this feat must be accorded to Ben Stiller. Disarmed and bereft of his usual bag of wacky tricks and fitted into a much less cartoonish role, Stiller does his best work in years with Greenberg and arguably some of the best of his entire career– at the very least, some of his most dramatically satisfying. Stiller fashions the frustrated and uncommunicative Roger into a complex individual instead of rendering him into a one-note character, someone who’s simply mad at the world who hides himself enough that we’re never afforded the opportunity to see beyond his unsavory behavior and glimpse the real and whole person beyond it. For all of his transgressions and his misanthropy, it’s clear that Roger is burdened with spiritual wounds he doesn’t quite know how to reconcile with; “hurt people hurt people”, he’s told by another character, and if the line sounds like an excuse meant to shield Roger from accepting responsibility for his own actions then it probably is even if it’s an honest description of how Roger functions. Maybe what makes Stiller’s performance so remarkable is that even though Roger reads as a lost cause, there’s hope for him even at his worst, and because we see that we want to root for him in spite of all of his flaws.
It certainly benefits Stiller that he has Greta Gerwig present to hold a mirror up to his character, and while I wasn’t familiar with her before I’ll keep an eye on her in the future. Put simply, she’s a revelation here. Florence’s problems are similar to Roger’s– she’s kind of drifting through her life, directionless and unsure of what she wants out of it– but she’s 25 to his 40. She has time to move on from her indecisiveness where Roger ran out years ago. Gerwig instills in Florence sweetness and charm that make Roger’s cruelty toward her unbearable, and an unfortunate timidness in the face of his loutishness. She’s not weak; a surprising development for Florence unfolds in the third act and grants Gerwig the opportunity to show off reserves of strength nestled in her character, not to mention the fact that she must have some amount of emotional armor to withstand Roger at his worst. Like Stiller, Gerwig’s performance feels wholly genuine and down to earth, adding up to something extraordinary in its ordinariness.
Which, by coincidence, adroitly sums up the film as a whole. With Greenberg, Baumbach yet again displays his flair for mining engaging and moving stories out of real life material without introducing unnecessary theatrics to his pictures, as well as his insight into how people, his characters, come to terms with the states of their respective lives. Put in reduced terms, the processes they undertake are often uncomfortable for everyone, which for many dictate whether Baumbach’s films are even worth considering. If you were hoping that his sensibilities have changed between projects, you’re bound to be disappointed– Baumbach’s knack for establishing an unsettling sort of tension in his movies is ever one of his trademarks, and represents one aspect of a skill set few directors today possess. Maybe most of all, Baumbach proves that when your career is in a funk and you need to reinvent yourself, he’s the guy to talk to; while this is a good Baumbach movie, it’s an even better Ben Stiller movie, and his presence may be what elevates Greenberg from good to great.