×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Greenberg

Ben Stiller's central presence gives this sneakily ingratiating effort a shot at a general audience.

With:
Roger Greenberg - Ben Stiller Florence Marr - Greta Gerwig Ivan Schrank- Rhys Ifans Beth - Jennifer Jason Leigh Sara - Brie Larson Muriel - Juno Temple Phillip Greenberg - Chris Messina Carol Greenberg - Susan Traylor Eric Beller - Mark Duplass

“I just don’t know what I’m doing with my life,” declares the 25-year-old nanny/assistant played by Greta Gerwig in “Greenberg,” and the same could be said of everyone else who drifts through Noah Baumbach’s unemphatically comic new feature. As a study of stasis and of people conscious of not living the lives they had imagined for themselves, the picture offers a bracing undertow of seriousness beneath the deceptively casual, dramatically offhand surface, even if the characters’ vague ambitions and aimless actions leave the film seeming relatively uneventful on a moment-to-moment basis. Ben Stiller’s central presence at least gives this sneakily ingratiating effort a shot at a general audience, but it will be most appreciated by followers of distinctively flavored, off-center indie-style fare.

Before anything else, it should be stressed that “Greenberg” is an outstanding L.A. movie. Heretofore perceived as a quintessential New York filmmaker due especially to his last two features, “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding,” Baumbach, having worked up the story with Jennifer Jason Leigh (who co-wrote and co-directed the very L.A. “The Anniversary Party”), conveys a strong sense of what it’s like to live in the city. Except for the opening shots, which seem specifically designed to spotlight Los Angeles at its smoggy worst, the metropolis is presented from ground level without editorializing and with a fine balance between the beauty and the blight, the ease and the hassle, the luxury and the basic, the stimulating and the banal.

It’s the Los Angeles any even reasonably comfortable resident experiences on a daily basis, except for the more-than-comfortable house where two strangers meet by chance. Gerwig’s Florence Marr is left in charge of a spacious Hollywood Hills home when the Greenbergs, for whom she works as a family assistant, go overseas. But then the man-of-the-house’s brother Roger (Stiller) turns up. Having just begun to emerge after a nervous breakdown in New York, he announces that he intends to remain for six weeks while “trying to do nothing for a while,” except for building a new doghouse for the family canine.

Even in this becalmed state, Roger is a handful. Sharp-minded but vaguely intentioned, unassertive but prone to explosive eruptions and quite addicted to ChapStick, Roger is a pile of neuroses. Not only that, but he can’t drive. Florence, who has just gotten out of a long relationship, is sufficiently drawn to his issues and complicated personality to spend time with him. She chauffeurs him around and, without a murmur of dissent, unhesitatingly submits to his abrupt display of sexual interest.

Latter development results in a couple of the most bizarrely impassive, juiceless, abbreviated and, in a word, unbelievable sex scenes ever put onscreen. It’s unclear what either of them is feeling or thinking before, during or afterward, and the encounters are over so quickly it’s as if they almost didn’t happen. Even if the point is that the characters don’t know what they want, usually people know if they want that.

There are other things going on, at an equally low boil. Florence imagines herself a singer, but her one ineffectual performance at an open-mike night inspires no illusions of “American Idol” in her future. Aside from composing numerous letters of complaint to businesses and government entities, Roger catches up with an ex who’s now a mom (Leigh), to little effect, as well as with former close friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a British former bandmate who’s struggled to kick drugs and booze and is undergoing a painful trial separation from his wife.

The resentment Ivan feels over his old pal’s perceived past misdeeds comes as a shock to Roger, whose immediate response is denial. When Florence doubles his displeasure by becoming pissed off at him as well, how does Roger react? By indulging copiously in drugs for the first time in years and by firing off his funniest line to the seemingly worry-free twentysomethings who provide him with coke at a party: “I hope I die before I end up meeting any of you in a job interview.”

Baumbach directs by deliberately withholding dramatic emphasis and emotional crescendos. All events, from mundane daily exchanges to the most pointed personal disclosures, are presented on an equal plane as taking up whatever short amount of time they last. Conversely, Roger can react explosively to the smallest thing but remain calm in the face of impactful issues. This calls for a different sort of Stiller performance from what audiences are accustomed to; it’s showy in a way, but smaller, more thoughtful, unpredictable — a portrait of a guy easy to believe as adrift with few if any friends, 40 and without a family.

Familiar until now only to fans of ultra-low-budgeters such as “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “Baghead,” Gerwig here makes her move toward the mainstream with work likely to divide, or at least puzzle, viewers. A big young woman who’s attractive enough but not at all in the usual glamorous-actress mode, she offers no perceptible performance in the popularly received sense; you don’t detect impulse, calculation, yearning, hidden feelings or anything else beneath the surface. She just seems completely real, behaving the way people do, just reacting to things as they happen. Either she’s a total natural — most likely — or she has the most invisible technique of any modern actor. Either way, interest will surround her subsequent work.

A subdued performance technique works very well here for Ifans, who strongly conveys in a minimum of time the difficulties Ivan is going through.

Lenser Harris Savides’ contributions to the film’s success in capturing a lived-in L.A. feel cannot be underestimated, and the same goes for Ford Wheeler’s production design and the selection of locations, which includes undoubtedly the longest film sequence ever to take place in the legendary Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, complete with real waiters. Songs by James Murphy provide a musical echo to aspects of what’s going on with the title character.

Greenberg

Production: A Focus Features release of a Scott Rudin production. Produced by Rudin, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Executive producer, Lila Yacoub. Directed, written by Noah Baumbach; story, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Harris Savides; editor, Tim Streeto; music, James Murphy; music supervisor, George Drakoulias; production designer, Ford Wheeler; art director, Curt Beech; set decorator, Elizabeth Keenan; costume designer, Mark Bridges; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Felix Andrew; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Paul Hsu; assistant director, David Webb; casting, Francine Maisler. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, Feb. 9, 2010. (In Berlin Film Festival -- competing.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 107 MIN.

Cast: Roger Greenberg - Ben Stiller Florence Marr - Greta Gerwig Ivan Schrank- Rhys Ifans Beth - Jennifer Jason Leigh Sara - Brie Larson Muriel - Juno Temple Phillip Greenberg - Chris Messina Carol Greenberg - Susan Traylor Eric Beller - Mark Duplass

More Scene

  • Noah CentineoNickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, Show,

    Kids’ Choice Awards 2019: JoJo Siwa, Noah Centineo Take on Bullying

    This year’s Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards was full of positivity and encouragement to be yourself. DJ Khaled, known for his upbeat mantras, hosted the 32nd annual awards ceremony alongside JoJo Siwa at USC’s Galen center. Siwa accepted the award for favorite social music star. Siwa said in her acceptance speech, “I get hated on every [...]

  • Tina KnowlesSoul of Nation: Art in

    Jay-Z, Tina Knowles Celebrate New 'Soul of a Nation' Exhibit at Broad Museum

    “This show is so important. I mean, it’s our history — and it’s a very important part of our journey,” Tina Knowles Lawson said about Friday night’s opening of the exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963 – 1983” at the Broad Museum in DTLA. “I’m just so impressed [...]

  • Jordan Peele'Us' film premiere, Arrivals, New

    Jordan Peele Explains the Meaning Behind the 'Us' Michael Jackson Reference

    Jordan Peele’s horror movie “Us” is filled with pop culture references, from “Jaws” to “Goonies.” But the most divisive might be right in his opening sequence. Warning, minor spoilers ahead. The movie about a couple (played by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke) and their children being hunted and brutalized by a mysterious family that looks just [...]

  • Danielle Brooks'Ain't Too Proud - The

    How 'Orange Is the New Black' Star Danielle Brooks Became a Broadway Producer

    Danielle Brooks earned a Tony nomination when she made her Broadway debut as Sofia in the 2015 revival of “The Color Purple,” but now the “Orange Is the New Black” star is working behind the scenes as a producer on the new jukebox musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.” “I [...]

  • Nick Offerman Amy Poehler

    'Parks and Recreation' Cast Talks Possibility of a Revival at 10th Anniversary Reunion

    For one night, Hollywood felt a little like Pawnee. The cast of NBC’s hit comedy “Parks and Recreation” reunited at PaleyFest on Thursday in honor of the show’s 10th anniversary. The whole Pawnee gang showed up: Amy Poehler, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Rob Lowe, Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, Retta, and Jim [...]

  • Andy CohenThe Shops and Restaurants at

    Andy Cohen to Receive Vito Russo Award at GLAAD Media Awards

    Mazel, Andy Cohen! Bravo’s late-night talk show host is set to receive the Vito Russo Award at the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards on May 4 in New York City. More Reviews Concert Review: Yoko Ono Earns a Wide-Ranging, All-Female Salute at Disney Hall Film Review: 'Shazam!' Sarah Jessica Parker will present him with the [...]

  • Variety TV Summit Europe

    Variety TV Summit Europe Coming to London on June 13

    Variety’s TV Summit Europe will coincide with London Tech Week this year, returning to the city on June 13. The international conference will be held at the Royal Lancaster and is co-produced by global events company Informa’s KNect365 division, the world’s largest business-to-business organizer. The one-day summit will focus on the intersection of content and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content