REVIEW: Greenberg [2010]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 107 minutes | Release Date: March 19th, 2010 (USA)
Studio: Focus Features
Director(s): Noah Baumbach
Writer(s): Noah Baumbach / Jennifer Jason Leigh & Noah Baumbach (story)

“Can a pool overflow?”

There is a saying relayed by Greta Gerwig’s character Florence which perfectly encapsulates what happens during the course of Noah Baumbach’s newest look into the angst of suburbia, Greenberg. She says, “Hurt people hurt people”. The phrase is apt, especially for her being the one a hurt person, Ben Stiller’s titular Roger Greenberg, constantly hurts. However, no matter how much worth there is in the dynamic between these two people separated by fifteen years, the generational gap a much larger chasm, I can’t shake the fact I feel just as Roger does when looking back on those words stuck in his head—it’s all kind of trite. Baumbach himself has delved into this material his entire career, with varying success, and I’m not quite sure there’s anything exactly new to add to the conversation here. The film is shot wonderfully by Harris Savides, unsurprisingly since the first thing I thought during the credit sequence was how much it reminded me of Somewhere, and acted impeccably. Even the direction is solid, giving the work a nice pacing and a smooth progression. I guess the script just didn’t have enough to grab me.

It‘s easy to get caught up in the characters since they are so similar in their dissimilarity. Both Florence and Roger are at crossroads in their lives with no idea where to go, but they’ve reached that point as completely different human beings. It would be the perfect co-dependent relationship—she the nurturing, motherly figure keenly aware of this man’s broken soul and he the narcissistic, angry compulsive who’d rather berate and drive those who care away than admit he needs them. She has found herself out of college and desolate emotionally with no career, weak dreams of singing for money, and a yearning for companionship despite fearing getting into another relationship like the one she just finished. He has recently been released from a mental hospital after a nervous breakdown and finds himself coming home cross country to remember the last time he was happy—fifteen years previous, directly before he ruined the chance of his band signing a record deal. It’s not a coincidence that they meet, she is the assistant of his brother after all, but the feelings they cultivate for one another are very unexpected.

What makes it hard to really bury myself in Greenberg as a story is the fact Roger is a horrible human being. You can’t dismiss his eccentricities and inability to not speak his mind as the ravings of a mentally imbalanced person; he’s always been that way. And the sad truth is he knows it. Back in town from NYC for a day or two, he knows the only person he can call is an old chum Ivan (Rhys Ifans). When everything blew up years before, it was Ivan, and only Ivan, who somehow separated the business from the friendship. He doesn’t know Roger was in the hospital and actually genuinely seems to want to reconnect. All Greenberg can do, though, in his self-destructive way, is push him further back by badmouthing his wife and refusing to make an attempt at getting to know his son. He wants the old days back, yet fears seeing the painful faces of those he left behind. Whether Mark Duplass’s Beller or Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Beth, they have all moved on. It’s not about apologizing or forgiving; it’s a past life they have decided to forget. Unfortunately for Roger, he can’t do anything but remember, regret, and refocus the resulting anger towards the people who do care.

The guy’s a jerk and Stiller nails the role. I’d have punched him in the face without remorse and I do acknowledge this reaction is what Baumbach wants. We are supposed to hate Roger and eventually ask ourselves if we’d have the compassion to give him a chance at forgiveness. As a result, Gerwig’s Florence is revelatory. With all that is happening in her life, she somehow looks beyond the petty insults and extremely hurtful actions from this man who made a move the second time they met. Having so much love to give, he’s seen as a worthy outlet to accept and perhaps be bettered. She likes his honesty, no matter how brutal, and wants them to be a couple even when he makes her cry. There’s an innocence to her stories—no matter how raunchy they may become—and a sensitivity in her actions. You know that she’d be a wonderful person to start a life with and wonder how she can get caught up with this 40-year old man bitterly hating himself. If the film has any worthwhile reason to watch—and I’m not saying the work has no merit, it’s just not wholly original—it is to experience her beauty, body and soul.

And there are flashes of brilliance sprinkled throughout. There are genuine glimpses of humanity before the obsessive disorders build defenses, ruining any progress, and, I’ll admit, some of the verbal rage assaults are enjoyable between Stiller and his brother Phillip (Chris Messina) over the phone. The most memorable sequence, though, is an extended party scene once Roger’s niece Sara (Brie Larson) and her Australian friend Muriel (Juno Temple) arrive. Trapped in a huge house packed with college-aged kids chilling to music and imbibing alcohol and narcotics, we finally steal a peek into Greenberg’s hidden self. We learn his true feelings about the past, his anguish at this newest generation full of intelligent, confident youths coupled with a lack of respect for their elders, (it’s a simply superb bit of dialogue from Baumbach that’s spoken by Stiller as the kids pass cocaine around the living room), and his capacity to embrace the present, if not the future ahead. It’s a scene that earns the character his earlier meanly vain personality, things we need to believe for his moment of clarity. But that’s all it is—a moment. Like with real life, both Roger and Florence have full lives ahead to work on their issues, but at least they may now have a friend to get through them.

[1] (l-r.) Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Ben Stiller star in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s GREENBERG, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Wilson Webb
[2] (l-r.) Brie Larson, Ben Stiller, and Juno Temple star in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s GREENBERG, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Wilson Webb
[3] Ben Stiller stars as Roger Greenberg in Focus Features’ Greenberg (2010). Photo credit by Wilson Webb.

2 Thoughts to “REVIEW: Greenberg [2010]”

  1. This is one of the best Greenberg’s review I’ve red so far.
    When telling the movie plot, most reviewers just summarize it without add anything more than what we already know about the story. This is why I usually skip that part in a review.
    You instead used the synopsis to unroll the dynamic between the characters and show the meaning behind their actions. And I think you’ve grasped the story sense very well.
    I enjoyed reading it.

    I really liked this movie, but it’s been hard to find someone else who have seen the story for what is it. Too much people just can’t go beyond an unpleasant protagonist and a bunch of scenes that aren’t obvious and easly comprehensible.

    ( I’m sorry if there’re some mistakes, English is not mother language… )

    1. oh good. sometimes i wonder if i’m just giving summaries or not, nice to know i mix in some insight as well. it’s definitely a difficult film to just jump into, as are all Baumbach’s works, but i did like it for the most part despite its unlikeable characters. thanks so much for reading!

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