“Greenberg” oddly likeable

By Nick Coviello

In 2010’s “Greenberg,” director Noah Baumbach doesn’t wander far from his comfort zone, producing a character-driven study of the odd and unlikeable Greenberg. Upon receiving mixed reviews for 2007’s “Margot At the Wedding,” Baumbach returned to form with his exceptional development of main characters in this latest release. Baumbach takes a delicate approach to molding the characters in “Greenberg” and returns to the basis that he created with his 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” in the sense that the audience is not quite sure whether to celebrate the characters for their uniqueness and sympathize with their personal dilemmas, or to look down upon them for their delusional, rude and rather improper behavior.

Set in present day Los Angeles, the film revolves around Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, who is fresh out of a mental hospital and residing in his brother’s house while he vacations with his family in Vietnam. It doesn’t take long to catch on to the fact that Greenberg is awkward in almost every way possible: physically, sexually and above all, socially.

Greenberg tries to avoid social gatherings like the plague. Even the relationships that Greenberg does have in his life are rocky. There’s a considerable amount of awkward tension between him and his best friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans); likewise with his own brother. Greenberg also attempts to awkwardly woo his brother’s personal assistant, a woman named Florence (Greta Gerwig), who is still searching for what she wants out of life. Similar, but not all that similar, Greenberg and Florence connect. The characters are brought together, separated, reunited and separated, keeping the viewer entertained, albeit frustrated.

While it can be dissected as a multiple character study, Greenberg is the obvious focus. It’s not hard to observe that Greenberg and Florence have a strange, enthralling, yet at the same time boring relationship. However, Greenberg seems to give it an edge. Quite simply, Florence is just an average woman. Greenberg, on the other hand, is quite a complex figure. Unlike the Hollywood mold, Baumbach’s hero of the story is rather unlikable to say the least. Besides being a social nightmare, Greenberg thinks only for himself. Throughout the movie, he showcases a need to be in control of situations and dislikes when others take the lead.

Underlining it all is the clear fact that he dislikes drawing attention to himself. He often ignores social invitations and becomes enraged when Ivan arranges to have the wait staff sing to him at his birthday dinner. Greenberg describes himself as a “brutally honest person” and not even Greenberg himself can escape this honesty. Unaware of the fragility of his personal relationships, Greenberg comes to resent the general dislike and ridicule he attracts, thus distancing himself from new company and struggling with casual everyday interactions.

Based on Baumbach’s direction and production style it appears he has fallen under the influence of Wes Anderson to a certain extent. “Greenberg” features Anderson-like editing that strongly supports the uncomfortable feeling of the story. For example, many scenes of dialogue between Greenberg and Florence are cut abruptly just as Greenberg begins to ramble on. In so doing, Baumbach conveys the awkwardness between the characters. The unexpected edits enforce the gracelessness of the conversation. Through this cinematic technique, Baumbach makes the content of his film incredibly relatable.

Dealing with comedies for the better part of a decade, Stiller has mainly been showcased in major productions and though Greenberg is a somewhat comedic character, there’s no denying that the dramatic, independent role was a change of tune. Regardless, Stiller has little trouble bringing the self-centered, aggravating Greenberg to life and creates further complications for the audience as such a likable actor plays such an unlikable character. However, Stiller doesn’t deserve all the credit as he plays alongside exceptionally strong supporting actors, Gerwig and Ifans; both portraying completely normal individuals in contrast the peculiar Greenberg.

As an independent release, “Greenberg,” like the title character, may not get the attention it deserves. Frustrating, humorous, rude, realistic and thought-provoking, “Greenberg” is made successful due in large part to the foundation set by the tremendous writing, producing and directing of the ever improving Noah Baumbach. But it’s the actors that truly bring the story of “Greenberg” to life. At one point, Greenberg ironically describes his talent: “I build things.” One can’t help but think that Baumbach and crew have built a quiet winner out of loser-like elements. With its subtle and at times uncannily funny dialogue, “Greenberg” is a breath of fresh air in the genre of character study and is sure to pave the way for similar stories in the future.

Nick Coviello can be reached at [email protected]