“I’m impressed by you that you don’t feel pressure to be successful… by other people’s standards… normal stuff is hard for him.”
Ben Stiller stars as Roger Greenberg, a man who is staying in his brother’s house in Los Angeles after a stint in a New York mental hospital. His brother’s housekeeper, Florence, played by Greta Gerwig in a star-making role, finds a unique challenge as she oddly connects with this memorable character – an ideal role for Stiller. Noah Baumbach directs and co-produces his own unpredictable screenplay (from a story co-written with co-producer Jennifer Jason Leigh who also has a small part as Greenberg’s ex-girlfirend Beth).
Audiences usually associate Stiller in movies with odd, funny stories that set up comic moments where he can deliver the goods. Here Stiller melts into his character, which can be unsettling for Stiller fans at times, but the story makes it worthwhile.
Stiller’s personality never really factors into Roger and past roles and characters never really come to mind throughout this one hour and 48 minute gem. It is interesting to think about casting an unknown actor, but Stiller definitely owns the role.
Roger Greenberg earns his keep by building a doghouse for the family while reconnecting with his past friends and an ex-bandmate, Ivan Schrank, played by Rhys Ifans. Filmmakers focus on dialogue instead of defaulting to visual flashbacks; the audience must decide if that is better for them here.
The escapism level in this unique film stays low as audiences get a memorable character within a documentary-like film that never uses cheap shocks or predictable turns. Memorable events and bits of comedy come from this kinetic character not to entertain the audience, but to engage them.
This sequence reflects Florence’s view of Roger as well. “You like old things,” Florence says to Roger. “A shrink said to me once that I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because I felt like I never really lived it in the first place, you know?” replies Roger. Greenberg grudges through his past again during a lunch sequence with Beth that exposes his vulnerability.
Filmmakers use an exterior pool scene with a helicopter sound and creative camera angles to accentuate Greenberg’s inability to swim. They create visual crossroads for key plot points like a long walk back to the house carrying groceries. Greenberg’s decisions consume the film’s third act as he makes a big life decision in the back of a car.
Gerwig sustains the endearing side of this plot as a personal assistant who is single, does not buy anything for herself, and has no self-esteem. “I have got to stop doing things because they feel good,” she says. Florence’s thoughts eventually turn flighty as Roger easily conveys his frustration. “We never talk about anything good,” says Roger. Roger seems ready for a self-induced meltdown after insisting Ivan tell him about the honestly negative feedback about him from other past acquaintances.
Roger and Florence’s unlikely pairing has a chance due to some genuine care and brutally honest interactions as the open-ended conclusion provides hope without showing it. Hopefully Roger and Florence end up making beautiful music together.
The three bonus features are extended previews, not full featurettes. “A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Greenberg” is very misleading. “Greenberg Loves Los Angeles” talks about scouting locations and capturing a unique view of Los Angeles, including input from the crew and location manager. This extra represents the best insight as audiences eventually get a behind the scenes look, but it abruptly ends just as interest peaks. “Noah Baumbach Takes a Novel Approach” touches on the approach to creating Greenberg’s character while repeating several of the same clips from the previous two extras. All these extras combine into an underwhelming seven minutes.
The music soundtrack includes a nice mix of classic and recently released songs by musicians including Steve Miller Band, Albert Hammond, Lily Allen, Duran Duran, Sonics, plus Paul and Linda McCartney.
James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem also contributes several songs including “People,” “Sleepy Baby,” “Thumbs,” “Plenty of Time,” “Photographs,” “Australia,” and “If You Need a Friend.” The carefully chosen music becomes its own character quickly in early sequences featuring side shots of Florence driving.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track picks up the dialogue well and audio language tracks include English, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Stiller deserves high accolades for this role, which also might garner him a Golden Globe nomination. Recommended and is rated R for drug use, language, and some strong sexuality. Also available on Blu-ray.