The Cinematic downer “Greenberg” just might make you Smile

Apr 08, 2010 by Rick Ray

Sitting at a restaurant perusing their menus, forty year old pals Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), and Ivan Schrank (Rhys Ifans), reconnect after years apart. Inevitably, they end up discussing the strange sadness that both of them seemingly share–the loss of youth, and the same sentiment that time is the great destroyer of people caring about each other’s birthdays.

Ivan’s cliché statement that “Youth is wasted on the Young” is met with Greenberg’s dark  response that cuts deeper, by proclaiming that “I’d go further, I’d go, life is wasted on – People!” 

Twisted Brahmanic altruisms about life sums up the mood of the movie, by Greenberg’s creators, Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Baumbach and Leigh’s artistic temperaments seem perfectly suited for each other, which leads to a reasonable conclusion that the film’s two main characters, Greenberg and Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), are semi-based on  Baumbach and Leigh’s own dark rooted views on contemporary existence. As the writers and producers, they hold omnipotent power over the protagonists, lending credence that the theory about their artistic temperaments are probably more truth than fiction.

The film is set in Los Angeles, a place where the disillusioned, disaffected, and the anonymous are able to hide among the throng and bustle of a large city, and as a refuge and modern day retreat for the lost and undecided about life. Those that suffer the most cling to the only thing that provides an answer to which they forever seek–the existential and unanswered question "That no matter what you start with, it always ends up being so much less.”

Well, it depends. Truth is, Greenberg and a group of his close friends once had the promise of making it as a rock band fifteen years prior. The rub to genius undiscovered, according to Greenberg’s logic, lies in his claim that if one is going to “sell out,” the beneficiary of the purchase—the buyer–is part and parcel of the corporate machine’s machinations to sabotage the deal.

Greenberg’s life is a never ending psychological and emotional death spiral, which may have some basis in reality. But so does death, disease, and a million other things that can and do go wrong in life, unfortunately.

In the film’s plot, he’s now forty one and fresh out of a psychiatric hospital caused by his recent nervous breakdown while living in New York City scraping by as a part time carpenter. So when a strange turn of events presents itself, what better opportunity lies ahead for him to recover his sanity at his hotel chain owning, multi-millionaire brother’s gigantic house in sunny LA, right? Wrong. 

Sometimes it’s the wrong decisions that give us a glimpse into our own true selves, and provide us a very quick learning curve that access our vulnerabilities. In Greenberg’s case, his entire character was consumed and covered up by his inability to beat the daily rat race towards society’s status quo–which reflects the protagonist’s profound lack of hope.

The movie unfolds when his agitated brother Philip Greenberg, (Chris Messina,)is leaving Los Angeles with his seemingly shallow wife and two perfect looking children to Vietnam, to open up a new hotel, thus leaving Greenberg all alone in his brother’s picturesque home. With nothing but time on his hands, prescription drugs, a dog, and some annoying neighbors that overuse their open invitation to wade in the Greenberg family swimming pool daily. The character’s relationship to the world and to his surroundings become tested.

His brother’s assistant, Florence Marr, is one of the more interesting actresses I’ve seen in awhile. Marr’s character, Greta Gerwig, is confused about her existence as most of us were when we were 25–—she’s stuck in an unfulfilled day job as a personal assistant; has an over judgmental best friend; and after a string of numerous one night stands and failed relationships, we see that Gerwig’s, Marr, just may be more disconnected from life than Greenberg, due to her seemingly hopeless routine.

After putting Greenberg into the equation what you have are two confused and hopelessly misunderstood romantics, which connects the two of them in a way they cannot figure out and don’t quite innately know why they’re good for one another.

In one scene, she stops by the house to see if Greenberg needs anything, because Greenberg has a driving phobia from years of living in New York City without a car. Their awkward, yet sweet interaction ends up with Greenberg’s grocery list request consisting of only ice cream sandwiches and whiskey. In the midst of all this and trying to cope with trivial everyday activities, such as getting out of bed, leaving the house, and interacting with other human beings, Greenberg finds himself at an ex-girlfriend’s house, Beth, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. During one of her kid’s costume themed birthday parties, he opens up to her about his current mental state of being at a cross roads in his life. Greenberg’s observation that “all the adults are dressed like children and all the children are dressed as super heroes” is insightful of both his ridiculous surroundings and erstwhile life’s situation.

Noah Baumbach’s mastery with the camera and dialogue make it cinematically clear that Greenberg’s struggles with having anything in common with his old friends (who are now successful), are very real. Bored and lonely he finds himself calling up Florence for a friendly drink out on the town, which instead turns into one shared bottle of Corona Light at her place, a make out session, and him performing oral sex on her. It’s a beautiful start to a dysfunctional and verbally toxic relationship, due to Greenberg’s erratic outbursts, that he somehow makes us all believe that he truly regrets afterward.

A lot happens in this film emotionally without a lot actually happening in the film, if you get what I mean. Included in these are Greenberg’s attempts to build a dog house for the family pooch, writing dozens of letters to huge corporations telling them how much they suck, telling his only friend Ivan to “sit on my dick” at his own birthday dinner, begrudgingly takes the dog to the vet when it could be dying, and just when you think he might be mellowing out – Greenberg gets drunk, stoned, and high off blow at a house party surrounded by college kids who are twenty years his junior.

Despite the age gap, the adolescent party goers view Greenberg as sexy, quirky, and intellectually hip. He finds himself not wanting to do anything and by doing so he’s able to get closer to himself and his arrival to the philosophically never ending question, “Who am I?” In the end he and Florence end up together, in a poetically, fucked up way. 

Ben Stiller is the one actor who fits this character’s mold effortlessly and carries off the dialogue and uncertain body language of Greenberg with a stunted grace necessary to nail such a complex character on the big screen. One day Stiller might find himself with an Oscar nomination if he keeps embodying these types of roles that call on the many layers to be peeled back slowly but poignantly.

Rhys Ifans as Ivan, plays Greenberg’s last and only true friend. Rhy’s restrained performance tells the audience so much more by what he doesn’t say or do, in response to Greenberg’s antics. Rhy’s never overreacts for a second and plays the frustrated, understanding buddy part to perfection. The star on the rise here is without a doubt, Florence Marr, played by the classic looking Greta Gerwig.

She makes you pay attention to a character in a film that could easily have been otherwise not worth much paying attention to. She’s got that extra intangible movie star quality that makes your eyes want to stay with her, on her, and you can’t exactly figure out why.

She’s not your typical beauty, but a throwback to a different era, and I have a feeling that “Greenberg” is just the beginning of interesting career choices for Ms. Gerwig, if she continues to choose roles based on depth, not roles based on her good looks.

Noah Baumbach’s latest installment hits home on many levels, and if you liked his critically acclaimed film “The Squid and the Whale,” I think you’ll understand and appreciate “Greenberg.” My advice is that if you want to watch a film that’s real and based on human connections intertwined with all the ironic insanity of everyday life, then check out “Greenberg.”

It’s basically like the way Cinderella’s love story should have ended-–with no glass slippers to be found:

Cinderella’s barefoot and still drunk in her pumpkin carriage on the side of the road the morning after, as the prince is passed out next to her snoring loudly in her ear. It’s comical and tragic–just like real life is and it’s hard not to smile when all’s said and done.

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Entertainment, Film

12 Responses to “The Cinematic downer “Greenberg” just might make you Smile”

  1. karla vargas says:

    I love the way this is written. Makes me feel like it’s OK to feel what i feel everyday! It’s crazy how we are all living our lives differently yet we all feel the same emotions but in different views of our own unique situations. I most definitely want to see this movie.

    [Reply]

    Rick Ray Reply:

    Well Karla – it was written specifically for you…No, but really I do appreciate your comments here at travelin’local…Your thoughts about life makes me feel as though “Greenberg” is a film right up your alley. Would love to know your ideas about the movie after you check it out?

    [Reply]

  2. Doug McBride says:

    I’m loving this review. It pulls me into the story, and it’s in depth to boot. There’s some truly insightful writing here, and truth be told, it’s kind of pissing me off that I haven’t had a chance to see the flick yet.

    Thanks for the great review Rick, and keep em’ coming!

    I’d love to hear what some of the other folks out there who have already seen the flick (unlike me) think about Greenberg. Is this thing gonna make me smile frown, laugh or what?

    Chime in people. I’ve got to pick one flick to see this weekend. Is this the one I should see?

    [Reply]

    Rick Ray Reply:

    Dougie,

    Sounds like you’re an insightful fellow yourself? This film will make you feel all of the above – smiles, frowns, laughs as you wrote – up above…! If you were feeling “The Squid and the Whale”, then you’ll be up for this Baumbach slice of life.

    [Reply]

  3. alvin sargent says:

    I dont want an audience to sit back in their seats…that is my job… waiting for answers is always more satisfying than finding them. Resolution day to day is the theme of sleeping with dreams t hat matter only because they leave you when waking upknowing nothing an audience member later at home tries to define them at the refridgerator or an analyst who is working on his own unresolved life, puts his answers into you…sorry, doc… I DESIRE (without defining desire) to write without resolution and study myself as the outsider, mY FAVORITE GUY. ` BUT THEN HOPE POPS INTO PLAY AND AS lUCY SAID IN peanuts one day , THE BALL BATTED INTO A HIGH FLY AND SHE WAITS FOR IT AS IT COMES NEAR and nearer and closer and closer , her glove open and ready for the triumph but it misses by inches drops to the g round…she looks at the pitcher…” sorry, hOPE GOT IN MY EYES.”

    Rick Ray understands something important. This is a brilliant look, written so clearly withall the feelings that these artists have brought onto the screen. I dont need to see the movie. Rick has resolved it.

    [Reply]

    Rick Ray Reply:

    Alvin,

    Praise of any form – coming from an Oscar winning screen writer is more than I could ever hope or ask for…! I know you’ll get this film in a way that most movie goers won’t. I appreciate your words and thoughts. As a fan of your work I would be honored by any future comments you leave here at travelin’local. I hope you’re working on some new material for audiences to be challenged by in the not to distant future?

    [Reply]

  4. Mr. Nice Guy says:

    I wasn’t going to go see this movie but after reading this I’m going to have to watch it. Thanks for the review mr Ray you really knew how to grab my attention. Have a great night lookin forward to reading more reviews.

    [Reply]

    Rick Ray Reply:

    Thanks Mr. Nice Guy. I think the film will grab your attention even more than my review of it. It’s depth is refreshing in this skim the surface, hollow era of flicks being pumped out.

    [Reply]

  5. Gideon says:

    Love the review…definitely will go check out this movie

    [Reply]

    Rick Ray Reply:

    Thanks for dropping a line here Mr. Gideon. Let us know here at travelin’local what you’re feelings are about the film after you’ve viewed it?

    [Reply]

  6. Mr. Wanderlust says:

    Dig the review! Wondering if Stiller is gonna go a little more serious with a few roles now, after doing this movie. I always thought he could be a pretty decent dramatic actor if he just gave it a little effort.

    [Reply]

    Rick Ray Reply:

    Greetings Mr. Wanderlust,

    I’m more curious about your name here than anything else? I agree about Stiller – more “Greenberg”, “Your Friends and Neighbors”, “Permanent Midnight” and less – “Night at the Museum”, “Mystery Men” and “Duplex”…He’s got range and I think he might be exploring that more now than ever before…Let’s hope so?

    [Reply]

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