There are some laughs, but Greenberg is much moodier material than standard Stiller projects. The comedic moments are rarely derived from Stiller himself, and instead come from the L.A. setting or other characters’ nuanced reactions to Greenberg.
The most obvious filmic comparison would be the jump attempted by Zach Braff when he wrote, directed, and appeared in Garden State. In both films, the traditionally comedic actors have succeeded in reining in their comedic energy and utilizing it in a different way – toning down their reliance on flair and goofiness and channeling it into a repressed awkwardness toward the other characters around them. In each scene of Greenberg, what Stiller chooses to withhold serves to punctuate the deeper emotions he seeks to convey – and most often the trade-off succeeds.
Awkwardness is omnipresent in Greenberg but genuinely serves to make Stiller’s character – who is entirely self-absorbed – more endearing. Baumbach does a great job of capturing Greenberg’s frustration toward living and it’s easy to see just how broken and disconnected the character is from reality – and, subsequently, we’re able to give the character a bit more leeway than he probably deserves. As a result, few of the important moments come off as canned, in part due to Stiller’s commitment to withholding, as well as Baumbach’s focus on the emotion of these scenes as opposed to the physical comedy they could have provided.
Baumbach chose to embrace a loose narrative structure that, given the strength of the individual scenes and interactions between the characters, was a great gamble. However, the film can feel a bit constructed at times – as if the filmmaker had to overcompensate for all the freedom he was allowing himself.
The most overt example of this is the reliance on Mahler, the Greenberg family dog, who suddenly falls ill midway through the film with an auto-immune disorder. The dog, while endearing, serves as a heavy-handed attempt at humanizing Greenberg throughout the majority of the film (most often after he’s done something especially repulsive), as if to remind the audience that he’s not entirely devoid of humanity. In addition, the crisis with Mahler often serves as the strongest narrative thread, as well as the motor to the story, resulting in the sense that the dog is loosely woven-in to hold everyone together.
The contrived threads are hardly an intrusion in the grand scheme of the film – as it would have been difficult to reconcile character motivations in a few later scenes without a couple plot devices keeping everyone pinched together. The story is ultimately better for these plot devices – though it’s possible the devices themselves could have been handled in a less obvious manner.
Greenberg is certainly worth recommending. It’s a terrific film with solid performances by the actors and inspired directorial choices by Baumbach. In general, the film is a rich piece with a number of artistic moments as well as complicated, though very real, characters. It’s certainly not the feel-good film of the year, but it’s a powerful account of how a few lost souls find meaning and direction in life.