Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) films are always difficult. The concept of going to the movies for the sake of escapism is lost on him. If anyone tried harder to make real life into a movie, they’d have to compete with Baumbach. If anyone tried to make a film where dialogue is king, they’d have to compete with Quentin Tarantino — and Baumbach. Greenberg is certainly one of his better films, but the casual viewer can only enjoy it to a point.
Greenberg, new on DVD and Blu-ray today, stars Ben Stiller in the title role as one of the most realistically complex characters in a film in years. Baumbach and writer/producer/actress Jennifer Jason Leigh have built a character with tons of idiosyncrasies and complexes and some how a comedian in Stiller manages to bring them all to life in convincing fashion. Both he and co-star Greta Gerwig as Florence have fascinatingly real characters with diagnosable problems and that’s the chief strength of the film.
Roger Greenberg is 40 and telling himself he’s going to do nothing for awhile. He’s just gotten out of some form of a mental hospital, which we learn before we even meet him, so as to (brilliantly) make the audience think “well, he’s just got problems” instead of meeting him head on. While his wealthy brother is vacationing in Vietnam, he moves from New York to L.A. to live. He meets Florence, his brother’s family’s personal assistant, a 26-year-old always thinking of others and not allowing herself to grab a foothold on life.Greenberg is a backseat driver; he writes sophomoric complaint letters to companies; he’s slightly impulsive yet he likes to step back quickly and reevaluate when he detects something is wrong. Most human of all, he deflects scrutiny and makes a lot of excuses sometimes irrelevant to his arguments — and he was in a band with friends that he broke apart because he didn’t want to accept their first record deal. That last little bit possibly motivates this entire story.Like most Baumbach films, this one is about more distorted lines of communication and never realizing quite what you want from life because what you want, what you once wanted and what you say you want are never the same. Greenberg’s cross-country move is a huge perspective change, which begins his slowly unraveling epiphany. The trouble is that Baumbach builds this film (and others of his) on character realization. There are some dramatic plot points, but mostly to create more dialogue for his characters. It’s a movie that really doesn’t allow you to process it naturally. You have to actively try to analyze these characters in the midst of being impressed by how lifelike they are. Everyone knows a person with at least one characteristic akin to Greenberg or Florence.No matter how much sinks in, everyone who watched Greenberg will be impressed by Stiller and waiting to see where Gerwig shows up next. Super-realism might not make the best movies, but that being the goal in a sense, Baumbach’s effort certainly deserves to be commended.Rating: 7/10 GreenbergDirected by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans
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