While worth seeing, 'Greenberg' is no laugh riot
It's Stiller’s richest, most complex role
Although the divide between previews and the movies they advertise has widened markedly in recent years, the trailer for "Greenberg" (Focus Features) deceives audiences with more in mind than selling.
Scored to LCD Soundsystem’s melancholy "All My Friends," a song about what it means to find oneself inexplicably middle-aged, it shows us main character Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) as he would probably want to be seen and, more importantly, as his on-again, off-again love interest Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) sees him.
Edgy, incisive, and too mad at the world to settle for the mind-dulling routines of forty-something existence, he is the Generation X equivalent of Herman Melville’s famous Bartleby the Scrivener, someone whose response to the demands of adulthood is a forceful, "I would prefer not to." This is the character Stiller has always seemed destined to play, a man too passionate about life to take it with a straight face.
Unfortunately for Florence, Roger’s best friend Ivan Schrank (Rhys Ifans) and almost everyone else Roger interacts with, this is rarely the Greenberg we encounter in the film itself.
What the trailer leaves out – his perpetual discomfort, his overwhelming depression, and his tendency to turn nasty on the drop of a time – is what the story is about. The soundtrack powerfully underscores this point. Although James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem contributes the bulk of its songs, "All My Friends" is conspicuously absent. Fans of the band who have seen the trailer wait for a moment that will never come.
And that’s pretty much what Greenberg does to audiences who enter the theater expecting a comedy. The film inspires laughter, yet mostly of the nervous sort that masks discomfort. Roger’s wisecracks rarely win anyone over. They sound like leftovers from a less earnest tale. It’s almost as though the character imagines himself being played by the Stiller of "Flirting With Disaster" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," when in reality he is too morose, pathetic and downright mean to laugh at.
That sense of a performance that falls far short of its mark is what makes this Stiller’s richest, most complex role, one that surely merits an Oscar nomination. But it doesn’t make the film any easier to watch.
Indeed, were it not for the presence of Gerwig’s character, the claustrophobia of being trapped with Roger Greenberg for two hours would be almost impossible to bear. Not that Florence’s low self-esteem and lack of initiative are that easy on the eyes. Because she overflows with caring, though, even for someone who is as cruel to her as Roger can be, members of the audience have a clear rooting interest. And most of them will probably be rooting for her to choose anyone but Roger.
The brilliance of "Greenberg" is derived from the deftness with which it plays this identification with Florence against the one that the film’s narrative structure – and its title, obviously – forces upon viewers. We spend too much time alone with Roger not to measure our own failings against his.
For middle-aged men of Stiller and director Noah Baumbach’s generation, this compulsion to compare can go very far indeed. While youthful and senior-citizen viewers will probably be alienated by Roger’s irony-saturated misanthropy, those sharing in his mid-life crisis are more likely to revel in the character’s own sense of alienation.
Towards the end of the film, Roger, who is staying in his well-off brother’s Hollywood home, finds himself in the middle of an impromptu party given by his undergraduate step-niece. At first his facial expressions indicate annoyance, as he tries to clean up messes and keep his brother’s ailing dog from eating things that will hurt him. But then he lets down his guard and, upon seeing that some of the partygoers are snorting lines of cocaine, decides to indulge himself.
Given everything we’ve seen of Roger up to this point in the film, his OCD personality and barely suppressed rage, this seems like a very bad idea. Yet it’s to Baumbach’s credit – and, one supposes, Roger’s – that the tragic climax to which the party sequence appears to be heading never comes. On this night at least, Roger turns out to be the sort of person whose behavior is actually improved by getting high, a transformation that Stiller’s acting forcefully conveys. And while there’s something undeniably sad about a forty-something man whose only means of sincere expression is the use of drugs and alcohol, the story doesn’t judge him too harshly on this account.
Indeed, it’s only when Roger is in the throes of this intoxication that he finally becomes, however briefly, the sort of Ben Stiller character that the trailer shows him to be. And maybe that’s the film's point, in the end, and the reason why the disjunction between preview and film feels like an artistic as well as financial decision. If we can’t be the people we want to be without performance-enhancing substances, maybe we should find role models that can help make us content with who we already are.
The way Roger treats Florence is very hard to take. Yet perhaps she persists in coming back to him not because she is incapable of doing better, but because she understands the reason for his rage. Unlike Roger, who is endlessly composing consumer complaints, she does not expect the world to be much different from the way it actually is. However, this laissez-faire attitude doesn’t ultimately come off as the resignation of a defeatist. Florence sees the potential for the world to be redeemed, not as it could or should be, but as it already, imperfectly, is.
That’s a talent that Roger sorely needs to develop, not to mention the middle-aged viewers – men, of course, but some women as well – who will be most profoundly affected by Greenberg. It’s not a picture for everyone. But it has the potential to be a transformative experience in the lives of the people it is for.
Charlie Bertsch has been based in Tucson since 2000. He has written about music, film and books for a variety of publications, including The Oxford American, Zeek, Tikkun, Phoenix New Times and the pioneering internet publication Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, which he helped to found back in 1992. He welcomes your feedback.