Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, ‘Greenberg’ is a brave and brilliant piece of cinema. It’s a darkly humorous and at times uncomfortable character study about a man attempting to reconnect with his surroundings and himself. The film is a subtly executed affair with superb performances from Ben Stiller, Rhys Ifans and Greta Gerwig.
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) has returned to L.A. to house-sit for his successful brother who is on an extended vacation in Vietnam. Greenberg was a former L.A. musician who now lives in New York and works as a carpenter. He has just suffered a nervous breakdown and is not the most likable of people. Before he left for New York he was on the verge of signing a record deal, his ex-bandmates including Ivan (Rhys Ifans) are still bitter about the fact that Greenberg ruined this some years ago. Central to Greenberg’s story of redemption is Florence (Greta Gerwig), Greenberg’s brother’s assistant. They begin an awkward relationship. She too is suffering under the weight of her own problems, but predominantly plays a supportive role in Greenberg’s life.
Ben Stiller plays Greenberg as a very bad-tempered and unpleasant man. Baumbach and Stiller make it very hard for the audience to warm to the character because he seems to have a careless disregard for those around him. This is not to say he is devoid of humour. In fact he is quite funny; we find ourselves both laughing at him and with him. Part of the success of this film (and perhaps against our own better judgement) is that we find ourselves rooting for this deeply flawed man because Greenberg is trying to overcome his issues. Greenberg hasn’t just turned up in L.A. as he casually remarks at one point to just ‘do nothing’; he is a man who is disappointed and frustrated with how his life has turned out, which is very human. All of this is performed ingeniously.
There is a scene in the film which I feel integrates the character’s intentions; whilst also drawing most effectively from the vision and the talent of both the director and lead. Greenberg gets into his brother’s pool and tries to swim from one end to the other. It’s funny and tremendously sad at the same time as we watch Greenberg awkwardly swim without managing to get to the other side. This scene should be funny because Stiller paddles in a very comic manner (it has to be seen to be believed!) it could be straight out of one of Stiller’s Fratpack ventures but the scene goes on longer than it should. It becomes a painful experience for the viewer. As he attempts to swim, the sound of a helicopter can be heard off-screen. No humorous score underplays this scene, just the sound of discomfort and pain.
We often hurt the people we love. Greenberg is no different; he constantly does this to the object of his affection, Florence. She is a pleasant twenty-something who finds something of quality within Greenberg. She is wonderfully played by Greta Gerwig, in her mainstream debut. She is a rising star from the phenomenon that is 'Mumblecore' - an independent American film movement with a focus on personal relationships, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors. Her acting is incredibly subtle and natural; she bestows her character with a surprising amount of melancholy and yet is strong enough to deal with Greenberg’s constant insults. There is a sex scene in this film which involves Florence - it is very naturally shot and yet is both extremely heartbreaking and painful to watch. How she imbues her character with these emotions is truly amazing. Gerwig plays her part so well that at times we wonder if we really should be supporting Greenberg in his search for stability and redemption.
This film is ultimately about a man coming to terms with who he is. Greenberg has a long distance to travel. The other central characters; Florence and Ivan to some extent already have reached their destinations. Stiller, Gerwig, Ifans along with Baumbach’s direction and script make this a courageous and darkly humourous character study. There are no definitive conclusions in this piece, there are only flawed people. It’s a challenging and sometimes uncomfortable film, which leaves an impact, perhaps not immediately, but soon afterwards. It also performs a brilliant balancing act between humour and pathos which I feel in the end expands the vocabulary of the medium.