By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Splendidly realized by Ben Stiller, director Noah Baumbach’s soul-searching protagonist lives a life of mundanities he perceives as mini-heroisms, his angst-filled choices, landmark verdicts.
In “Greenberg,” wherein Mr. Stiller generously gifts his first fully dramatic character study with stunning, prismatic dimension, there is a resultant, attending uneasiness to be had along with the divine comedy of it all. For there is truth here, both outrageous and pedestrian, explicating an authenticity unseen in all those so-called reality shows.
In exacting his pilgrimage from New York. to L.A. for the purpose of housesitting his vacationing brother’s manse, Stiller’s Roger Greenberg channels other standout dramatic portrayals by actors generally seen as comedians: Lucille Ball in “The Big Street” (1942); Jackie Gleason in “The Hustler “ (1961); Jerry Lewis in “The King of Comedy” (1982).
At stake, as is also coincidentally the case in those films, is one’s worth. Keeping score by society’s generally acknowledged standards, Roger arrives with a strike against him. In hushed, expository tones, we learn he was in a sanitarium, but that he’s doing better. A carpenter, he has promised to build a doghouse for Mahler, the family German shepherd.
Now, remember that friend of yours with the absolutely crazy parents? It drove you nuts trying to figure out how those two screwballs ever got together and agreed on something as conventional as love. Well, your answer by example may be contained in “Greenberg.” Enters stage right, Greta Gerwig as Florence Marr, brother Phillip’s competent assistant.
Appointed tour guide and host, she has been briefed on what to expect. But aha, several years his junior, she is about as vulnerable as her charge. Each takes a fancy to the other, though Roger is quick to qualify his options every chance he gets. Let the mind games begin, perpetrated for the most part by the cynical visitor. Personalities begin to unravel.
That’s all there is to the plot: life occurring while we’re expecting something else to happen. Played to the backdrop of day-to-day activities, including the usual comment on the L.A. mindset, romantic twist follows callous turn ad nauseam, replete with a running thesis on why amour can and cannot thrive among the damaged and dysfunctional.
Which, by this movie’s definition, encompasses everyone. Byproducts of the comic and tortuous relationship include an entertaining etude on behavior in general as well as some whimsical meditations on neurosis and its various cousins. Spooning combatants, Flo and Roger obliquely wrestle to find some concord in both their rational and irrational lives.
Thanks to a fine script Mr. Baumbach adapted from a story he wrote with Jennifer Jason Leigh, navigating the catacombs of these processes evokes a series of subtle ideas, with little of the hyperbole common to pop psychology. Rather, we are wafted along on the well-edited series of gradual decisions and indecisions that comprise human survival.
And despite Roger’s often irritating manner, we root for the troubled underdog, hoping that his ego will in time find a happy place to reside. We also can’t help laughing at him. His delusions of grandeur are his very own brand. Forever critical, he perennially pens letters to editors and biting missives to CEOs of nearly every company and organization.
Slowly but surely, as Greenberg attends to his overseer duties, which includes a health crisis when Mahler takes ill, we are made privy to some history. In an L.A. rock band some fifteen years ago, Greenberg unexplainably quashed the group’s chances of a record contract. His old pals can’t quite forget it. He’s still trying to reconcile the curious deed.
Ivan, his best friend, interpreted with a notable passivity by Rhys Ifans (“The Boat that Rocked”), welcomes Greenberg’s return to the scene of the crime and just about forgives him. Now a computer technician and a father, he advocates looking to the future. But while Greenberg wishes “everyone would just get over it,” his actions are hypocritical.
In-between romantic collisions with Florence, he defies author Thomas Wolfe’s admonitions by visiting old haunts and conventions, and even has a telling lunch with a now married girlfriend of yore. The scene says volumes about how two individuals once involved in a significant experience inevitably scrutinize it from disparate viewpoints.
All this can be aggravating in much the same way we were flustered as children when our favorite cartoon character didn’t see the villain creeping up behind him. We want to shout out a warning: ‘Life is to be lived, not contemplated to death.’ But “Greenberg” must make his own discoveries, and in the long run we’re better off for the journey.
“Greenberg,” rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Noah Baumbach and stars Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans. Running time: 107 minutes
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