July 9, 2010
When I see Ben Stiller starring in brainless comedies like the Meet the Parents and the Night at the Museum films, it just makes me sad because I know he’s capable of so much more. I understand why he does these films. They are paycheck movies that pay the bills and give him the freedom to do more personal, not-so commercial work like Permanent Midnight (1998) or The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) or Greenberg (2010). These films showcase an edgier more serious side of Stiller where he plays decidedly more abrasive, even unlikable characters and yet his natural charisma keeps you interested and engaged.
With The Squid and the Whale (2005), writer/director Noah Baumbach not only reinvented himself (he had previously made quirky romantic comedies) but also gave movie stars like Laura Linney and, with Margot at the Wedding (2007), Nicole Kidman, grittier, more realistic roles for them to sink their teeth into. These two films have a loose, almost improvisational feel to them and feature characters expressing raw emotions in an almost uncomfortable way at times. Baumbach mixes comedy and drama in a way that feels natural and authentic – something that is missing from standard Hollywood fare too preoccupied with either broad comedy or heightened melodrama.
Just released from a mental hospital in New York after having a nervous breakdown, Roger Greenberg (Stiller) is invited to stay at his brother’s house in Los Angeles and do some carpentry work while he recovers. His brother (Messina) and family are on vacation but his personal assistant Florence (Gerwig) is staying on to take care of the house and run errands for Roger. He ends up reconnecting with a former bandmate (Ifans) who takes him to a party where he meets his ex-girlfriend (Leigh). However, Roger finds himself increasing drawn to Florence and a relationship gradually begins to develop between them.
Ben Stiller dials it way back with this film as he completely abandons his physical shtick for a dry, more subtle verbal style of humour, like the letters he writes to corporations complaining about trivial things like the failure of the button to recline his chair on an airplane, or one directed at Mayor Bloomberg to deploy a police officer on every street corner in New York City to reduce street noise pollution. Stiller has really grown into his looks which suits the character of Roger, someone who’s made a mess of his life by not making some very good choices. The actor does a good job of playing an obviously damaged person trying to get by on a daily basis.
Greta Gerwig is quite good as Florence, a damaged person in her own way but she has a down-to-earth quality that Roger is drawn to and brings him out of his misanthropic shell. Gerwig brings a refreshing authenticity to the role and has a quirky charm that is disarming. She has good chemistry with Stiller and we are quickly hooked, curious as to where their relationship is going.
Greenberg is about two socially awkward people trying to connect but have personal issues that make it difficult. Roger, in particular, is a real piece of work and often says cruel things to Florence and others near him. Thankfully, Baumbach nor Stiller refuse to water this character down but instead present him warts and all. In some respects, this is the kind of unconventional character-driven drama that could have easily come out of the 1970s. Hopefully, Stiller will do more of these kinds of films and cut back on crap like Little Fokkers (2010).
“A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Greenberg” is basically an extended trailer with soundbite interviews with the cast.
“Greenberg Loves Los Angeles” takes a brief look at setting the film in the city. Crew members talk about how they decided to portray L.A. in the film.
Finally, there is “Noah Baumbach Takes a Novel Approach” which examines how Baumbach wanted to take a novelistic approach to the film reminiscent of the films of Hal Ashby or Robert Altman in the 1970s.