Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Greenberg

Greenberg, the latest dramedy from Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding), stars Ben Stiller in a role that strips the actor of the comedic stylings that have made him famous. The result is a thoughtful movie that provides Stiller with an opportunity to show moviegoers a depth we haven’t seen from him in quite some time – as well as provide the framework for co-star Greta Gerwig to steal the show.

The story follows Roger Greenberg (Stiller) who returns to L.A. following a psychiatric breakdown in order to dog-sit for his brother. Greenberg is forty years old and extremely neurotic. He no longer possesses a driver’s license, has more fingers on one hand than actual friends, and is content with doing absolutely nothing. Not only is he content, he’s actively trying to do nothing. Greenberg appears comfortable with the idea of continuing with a lackluster existence – until he meets his brother’s assistant, Florence Marr (Gerwig).

Florence is a pushover, a whimsical young adult struggling to find her place in the post-academic world, overwhelmed by thoughts of how to bring meaning to her life. As previously mentioned, Gerwig is exceptional as Florence. Baumbach must have known that he’d hit pay dirt with the actress, because he trusts her with a number of the more stylized portions of the film, including a two-minute opening credit sequence that features Florence in close-up profile, driving – shot in a single take. She’s a likable loser who tries to see the best in Greenberg – in spite of his routine temper tantrums, awkward demeanor, and disregard for the feelings of others.

Given the loose narrative of the film, coupled with Gerwig’s performance, it’d be easy to feel as though Greenberg could have centered on Florence instead of Greenberg (at the beginning we’re somewhat led to believe it will). However, by the end it’s clear that, while Florence is an endearing and complicated character, her journey isn’t as fruitful a story as Greenberg’s – due mainly to the fact that, while it may be uncomfortable, the story is more interesting when told from the perspective of the abuser, rather than a victim.

The audience is allowed intimate access to Greenberg – watching him alone and isolated, attempting to deal with the fallout from his transgressions. It’s a good choice and, when the credits roll, it’s clear Baumbach was less concerned with whose film it is, and more interested in telling the most compelling story he could – and Gerwig isn’t wasted by any means.

In addition to Florence, Greenberg reconnects with friend and old band-mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a father struggling to bring his estranged wife back into his life. Ivan humors Greenberg’s neurosis but often falls victim, like Florence, to the title character’s apathy toward the needs and feelings of others. Ifans is charming in the role, showing a cautious patience that routinely keeps him one step short of throttling Greenberg.

In the end, Greenberg is not a “Ben Stiller movie.” Fans of Stiller’s previous work will either enjoy seeing the actor delve into this subdued and moody role – or be frustrated that he didn’t just make Zoolander 2.

For moviegoers who are generally less enthusiastic about Stiller, it might be easy to overlook the film simply because of the “Stiller Filter” they’ve likely developed (avoiding any of Stiller’s films simply out of fear it’ll be one of the actor’s trademark over-the-top comedies) – but this would be a mistake. Greenberg isn’t a one-dimensional caricature and Stiller provides the character with a complexity that, though he’s still a bully at times, reveals a person so desperate to be in control that he’s spiraling downward completely unhindered.

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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.

Our Rating:

4 out of 5