Greenberg is the latest acidic character comedy from the perpetually underrated writer/director Noah Baumbach. His films dutifully mine painful laughs out of damaged psyches but never seem to be prime candidates for box office success. However, while Baumbach may encourage audiences to laugh at his character’s flaws, there’s often a deft touch to his scripts and shots which provides a humanizing counterbalance to the heavy-handed emotion.
Baumbach is a screenwriter who knows, loves, and understands his damaged goods. Whether his characters are vengeful shark-hunters in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or a disintegrating family of snooty intellectuals in The Squid and the Whale, his scripts often centre on some easily relatable, but hardly desirable personality flaw. This is a rare occurrence in mainstream movies, and is probably why he works so well with fellow neurosis-loving director, Wes Anderson.
Starring as the titular Greenberg, Ben Stiller plays a former musician who gave up a record deal at the age of 25 because he feared that he might “sell out”. But in the process of freeing up his artistic integrity, has since done nothing with his life. However, instead of struggling out of this predicament, Greenberg seems to relish his inert existence. In fact, this oddly proactive lifestyle choice causes him to reject nearly every opportunity that comes his way. It’s exactly this type of passive philosophy that seems cool to teens and twenty-somethings, but increasingly less so to fully-fledge grownups, who tend to look down upon his tendency to rejection and self-exile.
Set in Los Angeles, the film takes place over a short period of time in which Greenberg is house-sitting for his successful brother. Now a carpenter for cash, Greenberg dedicates weeks of his life to half-heartedly putting together a doghouse for his brother’s family. After abandoning them nearly 15 years ago, he then tries to reconnect with his old band mates and ex-girlfriend. Although they are all initially happy to see him, they quickly tire of his unchanged attitudes and lackadaisical obsessions.
Unable to move beyond the doghouse, or reconnect to his past, Greenberg finds himself drawn to his brother’s 25-year-old assistant, Florence, played by mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig. As their relationship develops, Florence’s status as a devoted employee acts as an interesting foil to Greenberg’s un-handyman persona is taken to comedic extremes when we learn of Florence’s tendency to sleep with strange men. According to her, it is not a matter of lust, but it just seems easier to comply with other man’s wishes than it is to plan her own life.
With both characters are lost in their own unaccountable way, they appear to be a perfect match for one another, despite the fact that their collective neurosis push them away from each other as much as their latent need for stability draws them back in. A lesser movie would have forced a condescending “love conquers all” ending, but Baumbach is too smart for that and it knows that for some poor people, just having a fleeting connecting with someone is a bigger step than actually having a sustainable relationship.
Though quite funny and briskly paced, Greenberg is not a movie of simple pleasures. To appreciate it, you have to dive into a sea of irritating characters, and learn to accept them for who they are. There are no easy answers, nor is there a sense of emotional closure. But anyone tired of obvious entertainment and with enough self-awareness to appreciate the rich tapestry of other people’s neurosis should enjoy Baumbauch’s caustic wit for what it is—a fascinating exercise on the notion of an undervalued career.