By JP Chapman | March 19, 2010
Director: Noah Baumbach
Writers: Noah Baumbach & Jennifer Jason Leigh
Starring: Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Juno Temple
Music: James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem)
Set in modern day LA, Greenberg follows the tandem storylines of Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), and Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a twenty-something paid matriarch/nanny/jack-of-all trades for (coincidentally) Roger’s brother’s family in the suburbs. With an awkward love/social life, Beth is adrift; trying to find her place in the world. Meanwhile, Roger Greenberg is newly released from a stay in a New York mental hospital, and is looking to do absolutely nothing for as long a stretch of time as he can maintain. When Roger’s brother and family are called to India on a combination of business and vacation, Roger jumps at the chance to squat in his brother’s home and continue his stretch of inactivity. Shortly into the course of his stay in LA, it becomes clear that Roger is adrift as well; struggling to find his place in the world, despite being in what appears to be his 40’s.
In the course of her care for the family dog and home, Beth manages to establish an awkward bond with Roger that fluctuates between romanticism and sympathy, as they connect via their similar places in life. Extremely awkward sexual tension abounds between the two, as Roger continually tries to get close to Beth, while simultaneously pushing her away whenever she begins to reciprocate. Meanwhile, Beth seems lost to the point of ambivalence-allowing Roger to continue this oddly cyclical relationship pattern for a large chunk of their time together. When not causing awkward moments between him and Beth, Roger is simultaneously trying to re-establish relationships with his friends and former band-mates from an earlier period of his life when he lived in LA and was trying to make a career in the recording industry. Attempting to jump back into the party life of his 20’s with these individuals, Roger struggles to adjust to the fact that not only have they grown up, but that they also resent him for abandoning them and moving to New York right when they were about to sign what appeared to be a lucrative recording contract. We’re left with Roger and Beth, both trying to come to grips with who they are, and where they are in life as they emotionally and mentally transition from one chapter of life to another.
While watching Greenberg, I couldn’t help but feel that it was Noah Baumbauch and Ben Stiller’s attempt to replicate the awkward love story played out by Adam Sandler in P.T. Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (albeit with Baumbauch’s own twist on the story-line and dynamic). While mimicry often annoys me, it’s not necessarily a bad thing with this film. Baumbauch is an excellent writer, and in the course of the film, manages to own/make-new all the similarities that run between these two movies. If you’ve seen any of Baumbauch’s previous films (particularly The Squid and the Whale), you’re already familiar with Baumbauch’s mastery of making his audience feel both uncomfortable and hopeless. If not, you may be a little taken aback by his efforts to pull a huge amount of realism and awkwardness into his plot-lines. I personally am a big fan of Baumbauch’s stylistic approach, and have been fascinated with both his own works, and his collaborations with Wes Anderson. One thing that I didn’t expect with his writing in Greenberg though, came via the fact that Jennifer Jason Leigh actually collaborated with Baumbauch on the screenplay, story, and production for this film. I was already a fan of hers, but am much more impressed with Leigh after seeing this film.
It’s always interesting to see how comedic actors deal with transitions to dramas, and seeing how Stiller would handle this was a high point of anticipation for me leading up to this film. I’m pleased to say that he did an awesome job. While Stiller’s already proven himself in other dramas, this was one of the most layered performances I’ve seen him pull off to date. Bouncing between his insecurities and mental issues, he steals the show, just as I hoped/expected he would.
Finally, it’s worthwhile to mention the music present throughout Greenberg. LCD Soundsystem/DFA Records frontman, James Murphy, contributes both new LCD Soundsystem tracks, as well as unexpected solo tracks that deviate from his typical disco-punk stylings. With country, 70’s pop, and a little bit of his typical fare thrown in, Murphy does an amazing job of contributing to the tone of the film with his musical choices throughout. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a trend for him via which he’s able to contribute to additional movies.
Greenberg is not a typical comedy, and is by no means a “feel-good” movie. From the trailers (as well as via the mere presence of Stiller in this film), I can’t help but feel that many audience-goers will go into it with that perspective. However; it is an awesomely complicated emotional experience that deserves to be watched. I was a little more impressed with Baumbauch via The Squid and the Whale, but Greenberg by no means disappoints- chiefly due to Stiller’s contributions. Don’t expect to feel that hopeful upon walking out of Greenberg, but go to see it—it’s worth watching.