“Greenberg” is a signature Noah Baumbach movie, which is to say a very funny movie that examines the failings of interesting individuals. Director Baumbach is known for his microscopic examination of human vulnerability and dysfunctional families. However, he also knows how to emphasize the “fun” in “dysfunctional,” and that is what saves his films from being dark and depressing.
Earlier movies by Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale” and “Rachel’s Wedding”) each deal with individuals in crises in their own lives. In this case, the spotlight is on Roger Greenberg (played brilliantly by Ben Stiller), a New Yorker, carpenter, might-have-been rock star, and former mental patient. Having just been released from the hospital, he ends up in Los Angeles, house-sitting for his brother (whose family is on vacation in Vietnam).
Greenberg was an LA native earlier in his life, and on this visit he re-connects with (or some would say dis-connects from) old friends. When asked what he’s doing by said friends or acquaintances, Greenberg states that he’s trying to do nothing for awhile. “That’s very brave at our age,” notes one of his friends. In fact, it seems that Greenberg is trying to sort out his life and the mistakes of the past, albeit in a very dysfunctional way.
He writes endless letters complaining about things, he walks everywhere in an auto-centric Los Angeles, he pursues and rebuffs a relationship with his brother’s assistant, Florence (with another brilliant performance by Greta Gerwig), and he tries the patience of his former best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans, in another great character portrayal). All the while, Greenberg will exasperate and charm. This movie depends on great character development, and Baumbach and his cast give it to the audience in spades.
Whether we are watching Greenberg interact with Florence or the 20-somethings at a party, we are aware that something both funny and touching is going on. Even when Greenberg enrages us, as his insensitivity with his close friend Ivan demonstrates, we understand the core of this man’s hurt and sorrow. Old wounds are reopened, even as Greenberg tries to distance himself from the reality of his past choices.
This indie, written by Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is remarkable for being able to take on the frailties of the human soul, even while making us laugh at the absurdity of it all. Through Greenberg, a square peg in a round hole (a New Yorker in Los Angeles), we come to see our common humanity and simple failings. Most of all, Greenberg teaches us that the worse lies are the ones we tell ourselves.