Monday, December 27, 2010

Home Video with Abe: Greenberg

Directed by Noah Baumbach
Released March 19, 2010

In director Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, an established New Yorker who returns to the West Coast to stay at his brother’s home following a mental breakdown. The film is segmented by brief intermissions that detail the letters Greenberg writes to various public officials and companies complaining about poor or disappointing service. It’s the kind of sentiment that many people have but few actually express, and it’s Greenberg who does something about it, even if the only audience that hears his thoughts is the one watching the film. It helps add considerable personality to the otherwise prickly and selfish Greenberg to know that he’s fighting the good fight, at least on paper.

Baumbach has a tendency to write unlikeable characters. That has worked wonders in some cases, like “The Squid and the Whale,” while other instances, like “Margot at the Wedding,” haven’t produced as positive results. In “Greenberg,” Baumbach adds a purely sympathetic character, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who is Greenberg’s brother’s assistant. Florence is more than happy to do whatever anyone asks of her without a complaint, in contrast to the ever-negative Greenberg, and never puts herself first. Ivan (Rhys Ifans), Greenberg’s friend, is similarly subservient and equally kind-hearted, constantly sacrificing his own happiness in order to appease Greenberg.

The story of Greenberg is hardly an overstuffed one, and little actually occurs over the course of the film. Yet it’s a pleasant, compelling break from the fast pace of other louder films that stops to explore one character and his influence on those around him who continue to stick by him despite never receiving so much as a thank you for their steadfastness. Though Greenberg’s brother Phillip allows him to stay in his home while his family vacations in Vietnam, their phone conversations during his trip show just how easily Phillip loses patience with his brother. Florence and Ivan, on the other hand, don’t give Greenberg a hard time even though he doesn’t extend them the same courtesy. The film’s title is appropriate because their lives often seem as if they revolve around him.

Stiller gets uncharacteristically serious to play Greenberg, delivering a muted and believable performance. Independent film actress Gerwig is endearing and pleasant as Florence, and she helps to anchor the film due to her extensive screen time and prominent role in both the story and this chapter of Greenberg’s life. The film even finds a small role for Merrit Wever, one of the standouts from the supporting cast of Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” as Florence’s sarcastic best friend. A strong ensemble and an enjoyable, entertaining script make for a fun, contemplative film experience.


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