Strange, sad and wonderful
Greenberg delivers with a mix of offbeat character study, and droll romantic comedy
Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg features Ben Stiller in the title role, but it’s not exactly a “Ben Stiller movie.”
Stiller is excellent in the central role, but he’s not doing much of his familiar comic shtick, and his Greenberg is a rather strange and sad character who is funny only occasionally, and even then in rather recondite and melancholy ways. Nevertheless, the character’s peculiarities and those of the story in which he appears are what make Greenberg an exceptional film.
This guy Greenberg is not a particularly likable person, but Stiller and Baumbach portray him with a certain quirky pathos, and place him among several characters who have various quirks and some pathos of their own. Baumbach’s movie shows a kindly and somewhat skeptical patience with Greenberg, and so do those other noteworthy characters, including especially a young woman named Florence (Greta Gerwig), who sidles her way into a second central role in the story.
The question of why these people matter to each other, and why they might matter to us, becomes the central thread in the small, tentative, and very observant story that Baumbach and company have set out to tell here. The basic plot premise of the film—Greenberg is house-sitting for his brother in L.A. and cultivating a monkish solitude while recovering from a nervous breakdown—is almost beside the point, as it turns out.
Baumbach’s movie takes these perhaps unlikely sounding subjects in several interesting directions. It’s partly a very droll comedy of manners set among posh suburbanites and would-be artistic types in contemporary Southern California (Greenberg himself is a native Angeleno on the rebound from an unhappy New York sojourn). And it’s also very much an offbeat character study, with a special feeling for neurotics of a particularly convoluted sort.
Oddly enough and most resoundingly, it’s also—in its intricately roundabout way—a romantic comedy, and a sidelong portrait of Florence. She is not named in the title, but we meet her before Greenberg enters the action, and the film honors her own muddled point of view almost as much as it does Greenberg’s. Which of the two is more confounding is hard to say, but they find themselves becoming a couple even as they gravitate in separate, patently unromantic directions.
Stiller’s Greenberg is a gaunt, haunted, 40-something refugee from emotional life, and Gerwig’s Florence (who finds herself babysitting the house-sitter) is a coltish 25-year old, seemingly centered and smart enough to skip right past the narcissistic evasions of someone as elaborately reluctant as Greenberg. Half-deflected questions of how and why these two keep drifting back into each other’s orbit, and the abiding uncertainty over whether either of them can acknowledge any emerging bond between them, makes for a groundswell of wary emotion in the later stages of this film, which ultimately has a surprising streak of poetic mystery to it.
Gerwig, who is from Sacramento, has movie-star presence, but she plays Florence’s mixture of guile and gawkiness with what look like character-actor seasoning and smarts. Jennifer Jason Leigh (who is married to Baumbach) and Rhys Ifans both do fine work in similarly nuanced supporting roles.