"By understanding the way your mind works, you can make yourself memorable to others." — Jonathan Hancock
Through the character he plays in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg (2010), Ben Stiller revisits the chronic anxiety and vexed physique that most of his roles include, even the most apparently benevolent ones. With a dialogue-driven script based on a story written by Baumbach and his wife, actress/producer Jennifer Jason-Leigh, the film is enhanced by the semi-lucent cinematography of Harris Savides (Zodiac, Margot at the Wedding, Milk) whose tonality echoes '70s auteur cinema. Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, an addled former mental patient who travels to Hollywood from New York to house sit for his wealthy brother Phillip (Chris Messina) in Hollywood Hills.
"Close examination of a man's behaviour reveals a powerfully masochistic, self-hating, and often pathetically self-destructive style," wrote Herb Goldberg in The New Male (1979).
Greenberg becomes an iconic oeuvre of style for both Baumbach as filmmaker and Stiller as performer. The story moves along by way of abrupt conversations and a very realistically indie atmosphere, filled with original music by James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem, Galaxie 500, Sonics, among others.
In fact, one of the main motifs for Roger Greenberg of relating to other people is talking about forgotten folk singers and bands, encouraging his brother's family's assistant Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) "to see past the kitsch" when he plays "It Never Rains in Southern California" or when he argues with a group of college students at a party about the importance of throwing Duran Duran ("The Chauffeur") into a druggy mix. He finds ex-bandmate Eric's (Mark Duplass) CD collection offensive ("at a certain point, you're just showing off," he says, criticizing Eric's musical snobbism.)
Attending a party in Laurel Canyon, Roger notices that his former partners and friends tend to avoid his awkward approach. He confesses to his old flame Beth that he is "really trying to do nothing" while sweating profusely. She is a mother of two (dressed at the party as Flash and a princess) and she has moved on after divorcing a less Jewish version of Greenberg, although Roger protests he's only half-Jewish. Greenberg says to Beth that Leonard Maltin would give him two and a half stars in his movie guide. She's just struggling with her new life and her voice sounds exhausted.