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NOT a Typical Ben Stiller Movie
Member Name: TheChocolateLady
Advantages: See title, the script, the acting, the directing
Disadvantages: A bit slow in the first half
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)
Summary: Noah Baumbach's newest movie is a fascinating character study