Directed by: Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Merritt Wever, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Viewing Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg was one of the oddest moviegoing experiences of my life. I was all over the map with how I felt about it while watching it. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I should care about any of the characters. Then I saw the scene with Mark Duplass, which reminded me of Humpday (2009) and the whole “mumblecore” thing, and that was good for a few minutes of just plain bad mood. Then I warmed up to the film a little, but went quickly back to not liking it much. By the end, I kind of liked it and was willing to let it go at that. The film, however, won’t quite let go of me, which suggests to my mind that Greenberg is better—or at least more worthwhile—than I want to allow. Don’t get me wrong. I still only kind of like it, and I’ll probably never want to see it again, but I respect it on some level.
The Greenberg of the title is Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a 40-year-old misanthropic egotist without a single valid point to his life beyond actively pursuing inactivity and whining. He has somewhat less in the way of social skills. He’s that friend who specializes in telling you “what your best friends won’t tell you” for your own good. In short, he’s pretty insufferable. At the time of the film, he’s come to Los Angeles from New York City to housesit for his brother who’s taken off for six weeks of holiday in Vietnam. While there, Roger’s big plan is to build a doghouse for the family pet, Mahler. And though he does work at this (he is supposedly a carpenter), he mostly tries to reconnect with friends from the past and both avoid and pursue a romance with his brother’s slightly vapid assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig, who appears to be another mumblecore refugee).
In a sense, that’s about all that happens. There are incidents, yes, and a subplot about the dog getting sick, which mostly serves as a device to keep Florence and Roger connected. But it’s mostly a film about Roger’s inability to connect with anyone on any meaningful level for reasons that only start to become clear in the final encounter he has with his old bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans). I honestly think it’s this encounter that keeps the movie from letting go of me—and it’s something that can’t really be discussed here without giving too much away. I’ll merely say that the scene makes at least some of his actions understandable—especially those involving not just finding, but looking for fault in everything. Only by doing so can he, in his own mind, justify an action from long ago. This doesn’t make him likable, but it comes close to making him tragic—or at least pitiable.
Still, certain aspects of the film seem wayward to me. Strange as it may seem, I more easily understand Florence’s attraction to Roger than I understand Roger’s attraction to her. There doesn’t seem to be very much to Florence—and maybe that is the attraction. Florence remarks—with apparent disdain—that she’s never heard of the artists on a compilation CD Roger makes for her (which is hardly surprising given her seeming lack of any frame of reference), noting that he likes “old things.” That’s fine and probably realistic. But then a few scenes later she’s drunkenly singing to Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Hawlsey” from 1971—and she knows all the words. This suggests she’s spent some time with the CD and lavished some attention on it, which makes her attraction to him clearer, but still doesn’t fill in anything about the reverse. Perhaps it’s simply that she’s there and he knows very little about her (whenever he learns anything, he tends to run away). But I’m left unsatisfied.
I think the biggest question about the film is whether the viewer’s moment of understanding Greenberg—and his possible moment of understanding himself—is enough to make Greenberg a worthwhile experience in itself. That’s far too subjective for me to answer. I can say that it was enough to keep me from feeling like I’d wasted two hours on the movie. Rated R for some strong sexuality, drug use and language.