Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Greenberg, is a lot like his older work — character pieces centered around upper-middle class intellectual white people and their problems. As unappealing as that may sound, I’ve been a fan of Baumbach and his great direction of characters that a normal audience probably cannot relate to or wouldn’t associate with.
Roger Greenberg (played by Ben Stiller) is maybe Baumbach’s most unlikeable character and may even be the most unlikeable character in a film this year that isn’t blowing something up or killing innocent people. In the film, Greenberg house-sits his brother’s house in Los Angeles and develops a relationship with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig). As the relationship grows, we learn more about Greenberg (even though details of his troubled life and potential personality disorders are only mentioned in passing).
Most of the beauty in Greenberg is based in Stiller’s performance, which is a far cry from most every other film he has made over the past decade. Although he is obviously troubled, he never becomes caricature and never too over-the-top when he is completely breaking down. He also is quite fearless in restraining any unlikability. Although he doesn’t break any moral laws, he is often cruel to people and emotionally shut off to the people around him. None of his actions are ever excused and you can truly see him struggling in his floundering life. At times, it is uncomfortable to see him in his self-centered act, but it is absolutely devastating to see through his lies and realize how unhappy he is.
Gerwig is an actress best known for the indie films from the Duplass Brothers and Joe Swanberg, the key figures in the Austin “mumblecore” movement. In her previous films I have seen, she is often a type of manic pixie goddess, but Florence is much more down-to-earth and likable, especially posed opposite of Greenberg. Unlike many Baumbach characters, she is not particularly smart and certainly doesn’t try to come off as smart — for better or worse — she is simply herself. What she may lack in wealth and intelligence, she certainly makes up for in compassion and honesty. She is a good characterization of a lonely 20-something who doesn’t necessarily have great ambitions, but just wants to live a good life.
Like Baumbach’s previous film The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg is a technically a comedy, but both films thrive in the dramatic, quieter moments. The relationship between Stiller and Gerwig is definitely a strong point, and even though it isn’t romantic in any way, it has a simple reality that comes through. Even though the characters (or the actors) don’t seem incredibly compatible, the actors make it work and make it believable. This is probably Stiller’s strongest performance; definitely his most complex and daring at the least. His performance certainly makes up for some clumsy set-ups in the second half of the film that seem like ridiculous attempts to put this character in strange situations. Along with the performance, Baumbach’s ability to make such an unlikeable character the center of the film is pretty daring, but I certainly felt invested in his life and wanted the best for him, whether he deserved it or not.