April 2, 2010

Review: Ben Stiller Goes 'Greenberg'

"Hurt people hurt people."

Writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) seems like a master in capturing the punishing heartbreak and nuance of life and reality. And he does it so well again in Greenberg. Greenberg should be an erratic, bohemian, yuppie critique that appeals to upper-class, affluent, elitist (mostly white) individuals. It should, but instead, it is an intriguing character piece that appears slyly to be about nothing (think Seinfeld), but speaks creatively to post-college malaise and mid-life crisis in a very serious way.

Ben Stiller is a quintessential 1990s figure, or at least he was, when he was in his twenties long ago. The actor/writer/director takes a step back working with the auteur, Baumbach, to create his most complex, often humourless, real character since Chaz in The Royal Tenenbaums. It is no coincidence that film was directed by Baumbach's frequent collaborator, Wes Anderson whom he co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox with, as Stiller really shows his dynamic range and depth as an actor.

Watching Stiller as the titular Roger Greenberg, it is hard to believe this is the very same Stiller that directed and starred in the likes of Zoolander and Tropic Thunder or shepherded The Ben Stiller Show. Stiller returns to drama while maintaining his sharp comic timing.

Forty-year-old men are and act a lot like twenty-year-old women. Quite deceiving, Greenberg is equally about the incredibly broken twenty-something Florence Marr played by mumblecore it-girl, Greta Gerwig. Gerwig's performance is effortless, subtle, and real. She appears not to be acting at all. In fact, her scenes feel documentary-like. Her honest performance is a delight to watch on the screen.

Florence is erratic, unstable, charming, calm, but grounded, and genuine. She has real problems and is just as screwed up as most aimless young women attracted to the kind of older, self-assure, but dick-ish men like Roger. Florence is inordinately passive but oddly confident. She takes responsibility for her actions and is assured while being constantly taken advantage of. She lacks the kind of boundaries and defenses most have. Unlike some insecure aimless, young women, Florence knows her value and self-worth but she's lost and confused anyway.

Greenberg appeals to an audience of Generation X-ers with the baggage and angst of the 1990s adjusting to the self-assured pervasiveness of the 2000s. The film's most memorable scene features Roger at a party full of twenty-year-olds mocking them and their confidence while spouting his own insecurities. Roger reaches a kind of emotional honesty he lacks throughout the film during a scene in a drug-educed stupor as his harsh, protective exterior is momentarily shed. How does the youth of yesterday deal with their failures surrounded by the successes of the next generation?

The way characters bridge their generational gaps through passive aggressiveness and conversations is interesting and Baumbach manages to craft these scenes wonderfully and cinematically. Greenberg is excellently shot by famed cinematographer, Harry Seveides (Zodiac, Milk), and artfully composed.

The film is about characters and not so much about themes nor ideas and story. The small moments make the film. Much has been said about the film's effortless, casual quality, reminiscent of mumblecore films even though Greenberg is tightly scripted and disciplined in its editing. Baumbach has managed to craft a very realistic, honest portrayal of human relationships and the fallibility of life.

Roger Greenberg is a "world-class narcissist" on the level of George Constanza, yet oddly likeable while being mostly abhorrent and rude. Greenberg could easily be an exercise in extreme smugness and unlikeable display but Baumbach has crafted a complex setting to explore the insecurities of adult arrested development. The Los Angeles locales provide a hollow, complementary backdrop that reveal the errors of human relationships.

Baumbach has captured all the neuroses, frustrations of young adulthood later in life and mixed it with sophisticated humour and depth. The little moments of characters travelling, swimming, singing, and just living their ordinary lives feel refreshing and entertaining. The awkwardness, abuse, strangeness, and interactions between these people are genuinely interesting. Greenberg is Baumbach's most sophisticated work without being exploitative or blunt.

Greenberg is a dark romantic comedy that is fearless as it is delightfully awkward. The film evokes Adam Sandler's stripped down, hostile performance in the wonderful Punch-Drunk Love by P.T. Anderson (There Will Be Blood). Ultimately, there is no better truism in the film than how people who are hurt end up hurting other people.

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