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Star - Ben Stiller
Genre - Comedy
Run Time - 107 minutes
Certificate - 18R
Country - USA
Awards - 1 Win (9 nominations)
Blockbuster Rental - per night
Amazon -£.00 DVD (£ Blue Ray)
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There is a time when established comic actors get to a certain age and want to be taken seriously. They do that by stepping out of their comfort zone, often having the confidence to do that because that they have the showbiz clout to hook up with a really cool director so to be able to impress. Greenburg is that moment for Ben Stiller. Noel Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) is that director. Will Ferrell did it with Stranger than Fiction with Marc Foster and Adam Sandler did it with Wes Anderson's Punch Drunk love, both smart little movies. The jury is out on this one.
This is the Jewish American cool school of film making you wouldn't expect Ben Stiller to find a home in, let alone hang his hat. In fact there is a lot of nepotism going on here, annoyingly so. Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) is the son of a famous film critic Jonathan Baumbach and his step mother mother is a novelist. He is also married to co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh here, who is the daughter of screenwriter Barbara Turner and actor Vic Morrow. Many of the other cast members are also siblings or children of previously famous entertainment industry professionals. Ben Stiller is the son of comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Jake Paltrow is the brother of Gwyneth and the son of producer Bruce Paltrow and actor Blythe Danner. Juno Temple is the daughter of director Julien Temple; Dave Franco is the brother of actor James Franco; Max Hoffman is the son of actor Dustin Hoffman; Zosia Mamet is the daughter of actor Lindsay Crouse and writer David Mamet. This is the sort of crowd that goes to Temple in Beverley Hills with Larry David to talk shop.
* Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg
* Greta Gerwig as Florence Marr
* Rhys Ifans as Ivan Schrank
* Jennifer Jason Leigh as Beth
* Merritt Wever as Gina
* Chris Messina as Phillip Greenberg, Roger's brother
* Brie Larson as Sara
* Juno Temple as Muriel
* Mark Duplass as Eric Beller
* Dave Franco as Rich
* Jake Paltrow as Johno
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a carpenter recovering from a nervous breakdown, is doing a spot of housekeeping for his brother Phillip (Chris Messina) in L.A., building a big dog kennel to pay for his keep. His brother thinks a change of scenery will be good for him, his family off to Vietnam for two weeks. Phillip has asked his personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) to keep an eye on her brother and help him out if he needs it.
Florence and Roger are soon interacting, the moody house sitter demanding whiskey and ice cream sandwiches, as you do. When college friend Ivan Schrank (Rhys Ifans) stops by they go to a bar to catch up, where Roger runs into his ex girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The two agree to coffee the next day where Roger announces that he is in town to 'do nothing for a while'. She replies that it is brave for a man in his mid-forties to have no ambition.
We learn that Roger and Ivan were in a band together after college and pretty good too, on the verge of being signed until Roger backed down. This has gnawed away at Ivan for the last 15 years and he hasn't forgiven him for destroying his dream. Florence, in the meanwhile, is strangely drawn to Rogers's lugubriousness and they begin a relationship of sorts but Roger still holding a flame for Beth. Roger is horrible to everyone in his depressed state but it doesn't stop them wanting the best for him.
As the week ticks over the problems start to increase and Roger more anxious than ever and in need of Beth, the family dog ill and the neighbors playing in the pool. When Roger's niece Sara (Brie Larson) shows up at the house with her Australian friend to prepare for a trip Down Under and a big house party kicks off, Roger is left to face up to the wreckage of his life amongst the youthful energy he longs for, the curious partygoers drawn to this curious 40somthing telling some brutal truths.
The problem with this film is Ben Stiller. It's Ben Stiller trying to do proper acting but still just Ben Stiller, but with longer hair, clearly trying not to smile so everyone notices its Ben Stiller. He just doesn't do enough here to convince he adds to the role. His romantic opposite Greta Gerwig (who looks uncomfortably like Jake Gyllenhaal) just thinks she is in a Woody Allen film (probably Annie Hall) and does that neurotic female thing with gusto. Noel Baumbach is clearly a fan of Woody and all his films about moments in people's lives rather than packed with story and momentum. Not a lot really happens here. I suspect its part autobiographical.
The film is about that moment in your life when you realize this is how it's going to stay, however hard you fight it. This is a Baumbach's personal study of that mid life crisis stasis and of people conscious of not living the lives they had imagined for themselves, which is why Stiller is so badly cast. He did ok but he is a comedian and this was not funny or engaging. Nothing wrong with a worthy indie romance now and then but it needs characters to pull for and some sort of comedic angle if the narrative is so narrow.
I don't really know who this will appeal to other than manic depressives. It's all rather cozy and self-indulgent and aimed at Hollywood's neurotic self-centered Jewish showbiz community and film critics. The fact it gets 30% less popularity ratings from users than critics on metacritic and rottentomatos tells its own story. I rented it as part of my last 5 for £5 at Blockbusters weekly discount deal and glad I didn't pay the normal rental. I like Stiller and will try films across the genres but he should stick to comedy. How about Zoolander 2!
Imdb.com - 6.1/10.0 (22,319 votes)
Metacrtic.com - 76% critic's approval
Rottentomatos.com -75 % critic's approval
Film Comments Magazine -'His sharpest observations are reserved for preternaturally intelligent, hyper-self-conscious outsiders whose existential crises are the failure of the world-and, to some extent, themselves-to live up to their own high expectations'.
Independent Magazine -'Baumbach is capable of brilliant dialogue, and certain scenes have a tidy truthfulness that recall Woody Allen at his pinnacle'.
Film4.com -'See this film for uniformly excellent performances and a beguiling aesthetic, but approach with caution if Manhattan-era Woody Allen drives you up the wall'
Big Hollywood - 'Stiller succeeds in a dramatic role but the script underwhelms with a meandering story and an unlikable lead character'
Las Vegas Times -'Greenberg is not an enjoyable movie, but it's a unique experience that will mostly appeal to cinephiles with insatiable appetites for character-driven'.
The Independent -'The engine that drives Greenberg is this tension between the illusion of our outward projection and the absolute loathing of the worms underneath'.
I came across this and really wasn't too convinced I'd be able to watch this unless someone taped my eyes open. Unfortunately, I was right to an extent; this wasn't the worst Stiller flick and it shows he's not restricted to a certain type of film (comedies), but it lacked the punch to make it truely compelling.
Greenberg introduces us to Roger Greenberg (played by Ben Stiller), a 40 something year old guy who's freshly out of a 'mental institution'. With his life wandering adrift and unsure of what he wants anymore, he returns to his hometown of LA to housesit for his brother whilst the family's off on holiday. 6 weeks in a colourful place, in a clean house and with dog to keep him busy, it's the perfect opportunity for Greenberg to sort his issues out. Isn't it?
Not quite. Intro Florence (Greta Gerwig), the wonderful, charming and sweet woman that lots of these sorts of films employ. She's a PA to the family off on holiday and whilst she has things at the house to do, she could just keep her distance from it and its new part time resident, Greenberg. But she doesn't. Instead, she's like a moth to a lightbulb because Greenberg is struggling; he's bad tempered, serious and quite awkward when it comes to being sociable and life in general. As far as driving, getting groceries, looking after the house and keeping the dog alive are concerned, he doesn't stand much of a chance. He needs Florence's help.
As the film progresses we see the 'blossoming' of Florence & Greenberg's awkward relationship and the transitions and revelations of Greenberg's experiences and personal issues. On one level, this is a drama because we see the underlying issues of people without there really being a strict plot per se or anything major that jumps out at you. There's no big effects or events to distract you from the characters, which should have been a good thing in order to appreciate the emotions and complexities contained within.
This is where my 'however' moment comes in. For some reason, this film just seemed a bit too awkward; whilst Stiller played his awkward character very well, the film itself seemed too disjointed, giving way to scenes that felt unfinished and ill-fitting. The ending also had that sort of unfinished feeling, and whilst it could have left the viewer feeling hopeful for the characters and imagining their own endings, it just felt a bit messy to me.
As or the acting, it was 'okay', but it wasn't anything that would win awards, neither did it make me empathise and feel enough for what was going on. In other words, it was half believable, but not emotive or gritty enough. However, to be fair to Stiller, he did a good job at portraying the obnoxious and quite insulting guy, whilst making us realise that he doesn't necessarily do it intentionally. I'm not sure that I would have chosen him for the role, but this does lighten the mood somewhat. Again, it depends on what you want from this film; it could have taken a darker, more 'gritty' and gripping edge, but it went for a middle-ground. It was fairly dramatic and compassionate, dealing with human issues and psychologies, and Stiller proves that he can go beyond the comedy box, but I felt that the overall feel of the film could have been more confident in a compelling and compassionate sense.
Overall, I can't say a great deal more about this film because there's not much to say, at least from my perspective. It was 'okay' (there's that word again!) but not a much else, which is a shame because I think more could have been done with a character such as Greenberg within the film itself.
Released 2010, 208 minutes running time, rated certificate 15.
Selling on Amazon for £3.93.
note: also appears on my film review website, TheFilmBlogger.com!
If you dismissed comic loon Ben Stiller as a one trick pony - perhaps quite rightly - Greenberg proves, beyond all doubt, that this isn't the case. Noah Baumbach - who previously wrote and directed the excellent The Squid and the Whale - successfully mutes Stiller's more familiar persona, guiding him to what is undoubtedly the best and most restrained performance of his career. The intellect demonstrated in his smarter projects such as The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder is more adequately realised in this stark and well-drawn character drama.
Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a forty year-old nobody who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown, and is presently house-sitting for his successful, well-to-do brother (Chris Messina). While their lush home and exuberant holiday reminds Roger of his own failures, it also brings him into contact with his brother's personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), a pretty, yet introverted younger woman. Keeping on an even keel with her is just the beginning, though; can he keep his self-sabotaging persona and misanthropic worldview at bay?
It goes without saying that this is Ben Stiller at his most understated, yet the nature of Baumbach's tale - revolving around a mentally unstable man - nevertheless allow some of the better, wackier glimpses of, say, Derek Zoolander to glint through, as Stiller portrays the various tics and facial quirks of his character with the usual enthusiasm. The real triumph, though, is how Stiller fails to deign to indulgence, and when he's playing Greenberg as crazy - notably during one drug-fuelled party scene - it serves a purpose, in order to foreground not only his failure, but his absolute lack of connection with any other human being (Florence notwithstanding).
Curiously, Baumbach has tamed not only one but two off-the-rails comedians, the other being Rhys Ifans, who plays Ivan, Roger's former band mate and best friend. Cleverly shedding his usual hedonist role, Ifans here plays an old rocker in remission, married with kids and teetotal, delivering a stellar performance in this stead, and cementing the futility of Greenberg's attempts to rekindle the days of old.
The major find, however, is Gerwig, who manages the staggeringly challenging balance of being vulnerable enough to make her relationship with Greenberg convincing, while also being charming enough that we find her likeable and desirable. Also of praise is her willingness to disrobe for the role; the nudity here is far from titilatory, and its awkwardness helps cement Baumbach's bourgeois neorealist tone.
Even the most brilliant recent dramedies, such as Up in the Air, eventually make their jackass protagonist likeable or at least a charming jackass, yet Ben Stiller's jackass is neither charming nor that likeable by film's end. It's safe to say that some will find Roger Greenberg simply too impenetrable to care about, yet for those prepared to stay the course, it is a sure testament to Baumbach's integrity as a writer. Greenberg's misanthropy - such as commenting on a boisterous group enjoying themselves in a restaurant - runs deep enough that any sort of character reversal would betray the good work Baumbach had done up to this point. While his pessimism is surely grating, some of his painfully on-the-nose remarks - especially about the pomp of the L.A. scene - are at once excruciating and hilarious.
Though there is plenty of agreeable metaphor to be found throughout - such as the brother's ailing dog clearly representing Roger's clash with this lifestyle - it is Baumbach's firm grasp of character and consequence that, channelled through these excellent performances, is the true reward. So authentic-sounding is the dialogue that, as Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Stiller chat away in a quaint little café, it seems as though Baumbach just invited them out, pointed a camera at them, and began rolling.
Nevertheless, be warned: those expecting a chuckle-fest because Stiller's mug is on the poster are sure to be disappointed, for humour is found mostly through Roger's neurosis rather than one-liners or savage raunchiness. The film is undoubtedly more rewarding as a drama than a comedy, for its psychology is smart and the plotting - though sparse - surprisingly veers away from the rom-com formula you might expect (Gerwig, for one, is scarcely in the third act).
There are no histrionic moments of breakdown or confession here, nor are there any overwrought declarations of love, and no, the dog doesn't die. Minimalist almost to a fault - but not quite - Greenberg is another immaculately told story from Noah Baumbach that remembers the key truth that so many overblown dramas forget; life is taken in baby steps. Baumbach manages to say a lot without having to spell it out, thanks to a script that's not always pleasant, but always smart and attuned to the intuitive performers he is directing. How he manages all this while still following through with a rewarding finale is anyone's guess.
When you mention Ben Stiller you might automatically see images of over the top acting and slapstick for the sake of it, bordering-on-toilet humor (and some that steps right into the toilet), along with some downright idiotic characters (usually bumblers who get stuck in situations that are so unrealistic they're not even good spoofs) and equally inane scripts. You don't usually remember his more realistic and human portrayal of Rabbi Jake Schram in the feel good comedy "Keeping the Faith", and more's the pity.
Thankfully, you'll probably feel you almost don't recognize him here in "Greenberg". Not that you can't tell its Stiller on the screen - although they've given him a horrid haircut and seems very thin, if not gaunt - but there's no question that's Ben up there. But this is more like the Ben who played Jake Schram than a Focker or a Zoolander, and we suddenly remember that the guy can actually act and not just make stupid faces and pose for the camera.
Roger Greenberg is a troubled guy. He's just finished a stint in a mental institution and moves from New York to LA to house/dog-sit at his brother's place while his brother and family are in Vietnam on vacation. He's there mostly to get his life in order, and also build his brother's dog a doghouse, when he meets up with his brother's assistant, Florence. The movie centers on Roger and is more of a character study than story with much of a plot. There are meetings with old friends (and an old lover) that show some old scars are still festering, which Roger thought were healed by time. Added into the mix, his brother's dog gets sick. During the course of the film, he ends up facing head-on the exact things he wanted to avoid, which were also those things that (I assume) led him to his nervous breakdown.
If you're thinking this is as far from films like "A Night at the Museum" as you can probably get, then you're absolutely right. Ben Stiller feels so real here, and so honest, it's hard to believe from watching this that he's done so many lousy films. But this film isn't some overly dramatic head-piece. Rather, it is a slightly sleepy character study that delves solely into one small a slice of this guy's life, which ends up being just a few baby steps in his journey of self-discovery. Supported by a cast that also do a wonderful job, one of the brightest points is Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill) playing Ivan Schrank, Roger's best friend from 15 years ago, and the guy he used to write songs with for their band. There's also some lovely play between Roger and Florence, played by relative unknown Greta Gerwig, who also happens to have a fairly nice singing voice as well. She's someone we should all be looking out for, as she does a lovely job playing the girl who can't get herself together but keeps her boss' life running as smooth as silk.
This all sounds pretty heavy, but trust me, even though it starts out pretty slow, there are enough small insertions of comedy keep it from getting overly dark, and we even get to see some of the old, hyperactive Ben Stiller when his step-niece has a party where he indulges in some drugs. But writer/director Noah Baumbach is smart enough to keep Stiller's lapses into hysterics well under wraps and confined to measured and carefully carved moments - that point up the emotional problems Roger is having rather than being the root of Roger's problems or overshadowing them. One of the nicer touches here is the repeated appearances of a neighboring couple who have permission to use the Greenberg's pool. They never let anyone know they're coming and when Roger has a little party of his own, they show up there as well. The understated but annoyed reaction to this that Roger has is precisely in character, and we watch his growing frustration with this throughout the movie.
This makes me feel that that the phrase "carefully measured" is precisely the best way to describe the direction and script here. There's much that will remind us of Baumbach's very personal movie The Squid and the Whale, in that he includes enough silences and sparse dialogue to allow the audience to properly observe his characters, and draw their own conclusions. As said before, the film may be a touch too slow for most audiences - especially during the first half - it certainly is a welcome relief to watch a film that makes you think again, after having our screens splashed of late with the types of technology that hide vacuous scripts, poor acting and sloppy direction. For instance, there's a scene where Beth (Roger's ex-girlfriend) meets with Roger for coffee. Here, the awkwardness was beautifully written without even one extraneous word, the acting was natural and honest and the scene was directed with the perfect measure of subtlety. As you can see, there's no hiding behind anything here, and in some places, you'll even feel you're getting down to the raw meat of Roger, even if you don't always care for him as a person - which is part of the point of the story.
It is interesting to note that this was based on a story written by actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also has a small part in the movie - playing Beth. I'd love to get my hands on this story since I have a feeling it is as well written as the script here. An indication of this is where one of the things that Roger does to help sort out his life is to write letters of complaint. These letters are so nicely written - with witty use of language and a sarcastic attitude that's just nasty enough while still being charming - that we realize she must have no small amount of writing talent. Mind you, there's nepotism going on here since she is married to Baumbach, but I don't think this detracts from the movie at all.
My husband's original insight about this film is probably right - when we walked out of the theater he said "it's a sleeper". Much like Baumbach's other films including The Squid and the Whale as well as Margot at the Wedding, this will probably only be truly appreciated a couple of years from now, and in retrospect. This is probably because of its very limited releases - both in the US and in the UK. If you ask me, this is a shame because we need more movies like this - even if it is slightly flawed - because artistic works that become popular remind Hollywood that the public can, and will, appreciate good writing, directing and acting - all of which this movie has. Now, if only he could have picked up the pace a tiny bit more in the first half, this might have been a truly great movie. I'll give it four out of five stars and recommend it - but not to those who dislike slow moving character study films.
Davida Chazan © April 2010
This film is not available on DVD yet and not even available on netflix, but it does look available for rental via Lovefilm.com! You lucky Brits, you!
ASIN: B003DZ13BY (UK) ASIN: B002ZG97T2 (US)