Rated R for some strong sexuality, drug use, and language, 107 minutes
Emotionally fragile comedy "Greenberg" stirs laughs and tears
There are some moments in the quirky new independent comedy "Greenberg" from Noah Baumbach that are a little awkward. Not because they're badly done, but you may be unsure whether to laugh or cry. Affecting, heartbreaking and emotionally layered, "Greenberg" is smartly written, directed and acted. It lacks the accessibility of some of other Baumbach's efforts and its downbeat tone might not appeal to the masses, but it comes recommended for those seeking something intelligent and unconventional.
Ben Stiller is Roger Greenberg, a New Yorker just out of a mental institution. He goes to L.A. to housesit for his successful, younger vacationing brother (Chris Messina) for a few weeks. Now a carpenter, Roger has an attitude problem - he writes complaint letters to American Airlines and Starbucks - and is directionless as he enters his 40's. A former musician, Roger attempts to reconnect with some old buddies, including Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who has some of his own addiction problems. and an old girlfriend (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) who's already moved on. However, he is most attracted to his brother's assistant Florence (newcomer Greta Gerwig), a younger woman with similar ambition problems as Roger.
"Greenberg" is a clever, talky and sharp comedy with one of Stiller's best performances, the highlight of which is a wild party that allows Greenberg to be himself. Greenberg is a slacker, but at least he's an intelligent one and one that always has something to say. He's a little imbalanced, a little geeky and a little unsure of himself, all things we can relate to at some point. Stiller lets go of his normal cheekiness for a different role: a fully-realized, revealing portrait of a rather unlikable person who clearly has trouble genuinely connecting with others.
Baumbach is a fascinating writer in his ability to realize emotions and dialogue, though strangly "Greenberg" isn't as emotionally fulfilling as some of his previous efforts, particularly his best film "The Squid and the Whale." "Greenberg" is more of a one-man show, though some of the supporting cast is memorable, particularly the dishelved Ifans as Greenberg's only true friend, and newcomer Gerwig, in a solid performance in one of her first feature films; she is the film's most sympathetic character because she is the one who is hurt by Greenberg the most.
The movie works fine until another unncessary subplot takes the film in a different direction and throws it off course some (though the party scene is still fun to watch). "Greenberg's" baffling ending may turn off some (and those familiar with the likable Stiller in mainstream roles may be surprised by the sex and drugs throughout the film). You may be scratching your head, but then that may be Baumbach's point, essentially leaving it up to the audience to determine Greenberg's fate.
"Greenberg" is a superbly-drawn, sharp comedy that appeals to the unconventional aspects of our personality. It may not be for the masses, but those that see it should enjoy it.