Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Juno Temple
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), is 40-years-old, single and not particularly successful or, for that matter, happy. He's house-sitting in Los Angeles for his brother (Chris Messina), a happily married parent who also happens to be, well, successful. The unsettled Greenberg, few in his loosely bound circle call him by his first name, attempts to reconnect with long lost friends including a former bandmate (Rhys Ifans).
Much to his own surprise, Greenberg finds himself slowly being drawn in by his brother's personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring singer and almost equally lost soul.
Will they fall in love?
Will they fuck it up?
A romantic comedy, and the word comedy is used without boundaries here, Greenberg is the latest introspective, relational cinematic creation from Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) and it may very well be his best film yet. Most assuredly, it is Ben Stiller's best performance in years and a likely nominee for next year's Independent Spirit Awards.
Calling Greenberg a romantic comedy seems a tad unfair and, indeed, the challenge Focus Features faces is just how to market such a brilliant yet complex film that contains ample heart and humor intermixed with a darker, emotional edginess that may very well turn off those thinking they're in store for another Stiller Meet the Parents type of performance.
Rather than Meet the Parents, Greenberg is closer in tone to his performance in The Cable Guy, though Greenberg plummets to depths unseen in The Cable Guy and is significantly more emotionally centered. It's refreshing, and a bit surprising, that Stiller is still capable of such a powerful, balanced and disciplined performance. Stiller manages to somehow turn Greenberg, the man, into a sympathetic man-child despite extended periods and fits of monumental narcissism and even emotionally abusive behavior borne out of his own social phobias and morbid views on virtually everything that lives and breathes. If Greenberg brings to mind any film, it would likely be the similarly biting Eagle vs. Shark.
When Greenberg meets Florence, there's simply no doubt that we're in for a dance of fear and intimacy, embrace and rejection, hope and despair. As Florence, Greta Gerwig displays a fragile, vulnerable intimacy that both repels and attracts Greenberg drawing reactions that will make you both laugh and shudder. Gerwig's Florence is unquestionably a lost soul, yet she's far more an optimist than Greenberg and their slowly building connection is truly wondrous to behold and remarkably believable.
There have been some who have questioned if Baumbach, as a filmmaker, might be a one-hit wonder given his marvelous The Squid and the Whale and his mildly disappointing second film Margot at the Wedding. While it's incredibly unlikely that Greenberg will give Baumbach a blockbuster, even given Stiller's marketability, it does serve as proof positive that Baumbach remains one of Hollywood's most dependable voices for relational, emotionally resonant material.
Greenberg also features solid supporting turns by Rhys Ifans, here underplaying his usual festive persona, and the always dependable Jennifer Jason Leigh. Harris Savides' camera work nicely captures that fuzzy line between light and dark that exists both in Los Angeles and the characters who find themselves living there.
Open-minded Ben Stiller fans and connoisseurs of Baumbach and/or relationally driven cinema will find much to love about Greenberg, a cinematic joy from Noah Baumbach and an acting wonderland for both Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig.
Is there always hope?
Nah, not really.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic