×
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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • US record producer The-Dream arrives for

    Top Music Publishers Come Together for Songs of Hope Honors

    The 15th annual Songs of Hope honors united songwriters, music industry insiders and more than a few preeminent doctors at producer Alex Da Kid’s Sherman Oaks compound on Thursday night. Jimmy Jam returned to host the event, which served as a fundraiser for the ever-vital City of Hope medical treatment center as well as a [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Keke Palmer BlogHer19 Summit

    Keke Palmer Brought to Tears Accepting Truth Teller Award at #BlogHer19 Creators Summit

    Keke Palmer stood surprised and wide-mouthed on the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit stage as she was presented with the Truth Teller Award for her recent acting work — and her viral “sorry to this man” clip. “This means so much,” the multi-hyphenated star softly whispered as she got teary-eyed upon accepting the award. Last week, the [...]

  • LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 19:

    Emmys 2019: Inside All the Hottest Pre-Parties

    It’s (Emmys) party time! Before the 71st annual Emmys go live on Sunday, stars and execs are keeping busy by party-hopping in the days leading up to the big show. Here, Variety gives you the inside details on who was where and what they were doing. Keep checking back right here throughout the weekend for [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Green Dress

    Jennifer Lopez Closes Out Versace Show in Famous Green Grammys Dress

    Jennifer Lopez has found her way back into the Versace dress that broke the internet in 2000. The “Hustlers” star closed out Versace’s Spring 2020 show in a re-worked version of the revealing, bright green silk chiffon dress that she wore to the Grammy Awards 20 years ago. The dress quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon, [...]

  • 10 Storytellers to Watch

    Variety Celebrates Inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch Event

    Storytellers from across the spectrum of entertainment — film, literature, podcasting and play writing — were honored Thursday at Variety’s inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch luncheon at Gramercy Park Hotel, hosted with partner the Independent Filmmaker Project and presented by Audible. Honorees Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Friday Black”; “Limetown” podcasters Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie; [...]

  • Demi Moore Corporate Animals

    Demi Moore Teases Upcoming Memoir 'Inside Out,' Talks 'Corporate Animals' Team Bonding

    As Demi Moore gears up for the Sept. 24 release of her autobiography “Inside Out,” the actress says she feels like a weight has been lifted. “Even the stuff that I may have been nervous about is completely lifting…because it’s a process,” Moore told Variety at the premiere of her upcoming film “Corporate Animals” at [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content