GREENBERG —-“Hurt people hurt people“, ‘Florence’ (Greta Gerwig) tells ‘Roger Greenberg’ (Ben Stiller), who’s repeatedly shown himself to be able to wield the victim scalpel like a serial relationship killer. A been-there-too-often retort to her simply stated truism could be ‘That’s for damn sure’, and it’s usually a good bit after the fact that one can chuckle or at least grimace with class over the endured-for-Wuv insults & injuries. In the case of this knife-edged 2010 comedy-drama, the bitter humor comes first and sticks around to buffer the discomfort; a good thing because this Greenberg dybbuk is a real piece of work.
“It’s huge to finally embrace the life you never planned on.”
After years in New York City (and some time in psychiatric hospitals), 40-year-old Roger Greenberg returns to the different vibe of Los Angeles to watch his brothers house while the family goes on vacation. Their personal assistant Florence, 25, is tasked with taking care of the dog. While he reconnects with—and wears out—old friends who know how difficult he can be, Roger and the bright, pleasant but unguarded Florence get together. Sort of. Then not. Then…
“A shrink said to me once that I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because I felt like I never really lived it in the first place, you know?”
Written & directed by modern urban observational expert (upper middle class slice) Noah Baumbach, who has a keen grasp on how to make unhappy, unlikable characters interesting to put up with (in this case for 107 minutes) as they hew their way through the partially less messed-up. It’s stocked with smart talk, written with Baumbach’s marked facility for caustic putdowns so as to seem like natural speak rather than one-liners.
He and Jennifer Jason Leigh came up with the story and made adept casting choices in Stiller and Gerwig. Leigh, Baumbach’s wife at the time, both co-produced and plays a small role (a fairly nice and non-neurotic one for a change). Stiller takes his well-honed nebbish persona and inverts it, letting the script provide the satire and buffoonery (the letter-writing stuff is great) and playing his jerk straight, making the impatient, unstable Greenberg less Seinfeld with a gripe and more like Woody Allen with a tire iron. Gerwig, then known only for bare-bones indies, is Baumbach and Leigh’s twist on what’s come to be called an MPDG or “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, as coined by Nathan Rabin in a 2007 article about a character played by Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. Gerwig gained weight and played the quirky type down to more of a real-life plane. Baumbach offered “Those characters are always presented as saviors, but the reality is, they’re getting some neurotic, perverse fulfillment, or lack of fulfillment, by getting involved with this asshole,”…(and for the men)…”those women are generally much more interesting because they’re depressed and fucked up.” Ouch. What happened to “Hi!” ? *
Though it drew praise for the acting (Stiller, stellar) and writing, its discomfort level didn’t pull crowds, bombing out with a $7,000,000 gross against the $25,000,000 invested. In the cast: Rhys Ifans, Merrit Wever, Brie Larson, Juno Temple and Mark Duplass. If the movie comes around, watch it. If someone like ‘Greenberg’ shows up, cross the street and head the other way.
* Art meets Life on the battlefield: Baumbach and Leigh split up after the filming, citing “irreconcilable differences”. Baumbach and Gerwig have been together since 2011.