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Movie Review: Greenberg

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As I left the theater I was very quiet. It is not that Greenberg put me into a reverential silence nor did it give me very much to think about. I walked out trying to figure out how I felt about it while I listened to a few other patrons quietly verbalize their feelings. Their comments ranged from "I don't get it" to "That's it?" to "That wasn't too bad." However, no one seemed to come right out and say they liked it.

I fall into that last group. I liked it, I didn't love it. It is a film I am having a hard time putting forming a definitive opinion about. There are elements I like about it just as there are things I don't particularly care for. The funny thing is that as I struggle to see, the movie makes up its own mind — it is almost like it really doesn't care one way or the other.

Greenberg is the latest from writer/director Noah Baumbach. He is an interesting filmmaker who, in my limited experience, feeds off of his own experiences and is more interested in the characters than he is with any sort of plot development. This is clearly evidenced in Greenberg by a distinct lack of plot and a strongly organic approach to the characters. It is all very "indie" and that may be a potential reason for my reaction. While I respect indie filmmakers and their works and I am willing to give just about anything a chance, many of these character-based indie films escape me. I get them, they just don't affect me as much.

The extent of my Baumbach experience can be summed up in two films. I really enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is not really a Baumbach film but he did co-write the adaptation with Wes Anderson. The other film is the 2005 Oscar-nominated drama The Squid and the Whale, a semi-autobiographical film about his growing up in a broken home. I have not seen it since the theater, but I remember really liking it, the way the characters were written and the vivid portrait it painted.

Now we have Greenberg, a kind-of dramedy that features Ben Stiller being cast against type (more along the lines of his work in Permanent Midnight). Stiller is the titular Greenberg, first name Roger, an odd man fresh out of a mental institution (the reason goes unmentioned) who travels from his home in New York to his home town in California where he is to house sit for his brother and his family who are off to vacation in Vietnam (why Vietnam I do not know but it is interesting to wonder, is it not?). Before we go on with Greenberg, there is another major player to know about. Florence (Greta Gerwig) is the Greenberg family's personal assistant, a recent college graduate who is finding her own way in the world.

Roger is told that if he has any questions or needs anything he can call Florence; she knows where everything is and has made herself available to help out. Before long he is calling her for assistance and shortly after that, the two have entered an odd romantic relationship that is severely dysfunctional. Alongside this on/off relationship that seems destined to self-destruct before it ever gets anywhere, Greenberg is also faced with a reunion with old friends Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Eric (Mark Duplass). Both men were in a band with Greenberg when they were younger before some misguided concept of artistic integrity sent Greenberg running to New York. The final piece of the puzzle is Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an ex-girlfriend whom Greenberg has hopes of re-kindling fires with.

The film just meanders along, scene to scene, following Greenberg and his neurotic idiosyncrasies. Watch him as he goes on awkward dates with Florence, writes angry letters to corporations, and tries to rediscover himself in world that seems to have left him behind. No, that is not quite accurate, but it is clear he is damaged and his limited social skills do not leave much room for him to accurately interpret how his actions will affect those around him.

The movie begins and ends with little happening. I am not sure any of the characters have truly grown or developed from where they were. We are dropped into the middle of their lives for a brief period of time, there is no real beginning or end, it just is what it is.

I don't require movies to define everything for me, I more or less get what is going on here. The problem is that the characters are not terribly sympathetic and I cannot say that I like any of them. Their flaws become defining characteristics, and I am not sure I like it.

My overall feelings about the film are middling and I could go either way with it. Noah Baumbach's writing is good. There is a very specific flow to the story, even if it ultimately does not have much of a point; there is a believability to it that I find interesting.

The best thing about the movie is Ben Stiller. He is not the Stiller you are used to, yet he is instantly recognizable. This screenplay seems to offer him a freedom other roles do not, it allows him to stretch his abilities and show another side. So what if I don't care for the character, I'm not sure I'm supposed to like him. Stiller's performance is a brave one that should be seen even if I am not sure the movie needs to be. Yes, that's right, my ambivalence to most of this movie runs deep.

Bottom line. See it, don't see it. It doesn't really matter. The movie is not a great must see, it is a curiosity for Stillers' performance. In the end you are likely to forget it in relatively short order if you are anything like me.

Mildly Recommended.

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