Noah Baumbach’s recent movie, Greenberg, nominated for the Golden Bear at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival, is brave and prickly. As played by Ben Stiller, Roger Greenberg is not a likeable person. I can’t think of any lead actor in recent memory who doesn’t want to be liked on screen.
He’s not gruff with a heart of gold. He explodes in anger at the very people who care for him. He is not soft and fuzzy. To illustrate, his favorite hobby is writing crank complaint letters to American Airlines about faulty seat buttons and to the Mayor of New York about stopping traffic noise.
Greenberg is staying at his wealthy brother’s home in Los Angeles having just recovered from a nervous breakdown in New York. His brother, who is a hotelier, is off to Vietnam to open another place. Greenberg’s cover story for why he’s in Los Angeles is that he’s a carpenter building a dog house for his brother’s German Shepherd Mahler, but his refrain when asked is that he’s trying to do nothing deliberately for a while. It should be tattooed on his pillow.
Casually dropped into the story is that Greenberg turned down a major record deal 15 years before which altered his life and the lives of his bandmates. His friend Ivan, played by Rhys Ifans, alludes to this when he tells him at the end during a quarrel that he’s finally embraced the life he didn’t plan for. Ivan is a patient, tolerant friend. It takes a lot to anger him, but Greenberg manages.
Baumbach, as director and screenwriter, (his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, who appears briefly as an old flame of Greenberg’s, co-wrote the story) can capture the slightest nuances, which speak volumes about the characters and their relationships. There are many great lines in the film, but one that stuck with me was, “Hurt people hurt people.” That was also true in “The Squid and The Whale”, as you watched a family fall apart and damage each other trying to punish and heal simultaneously.
Greta Gerwig is yin to Greenberg’s yang as Florence, Greenberg’s brother’s assistant. We meet her as she drives down an LA street questioning the unseen car next to her, “Are you going to let me in?” She runs petty errands for her boss and his wife, picking up his dry cleaning and choosing vegetables at the Farmer’s Market. You see the imbalance and the casual cruelty of her employers as they ask how much they owe her in back pay and she shrugs it off, “About 3 weeks.” She’s an afterthought. In the next scene she’s borrowing $40 from her friend.
One of the reason she likes Greenberg is because he IS doing nothing deliberately. She has a brief affair with him but he is verbally abusive to her. Gerwig is beautiful, touching, guileless and disarmingly honest. She’s not showy. You watch her closely because she moves with ungainly grace.
Greenberg does have redeemable qualities even within Stiller’s crabby shell. He cares for Mahler through a serious illness and at a crucial moment, he helps Greta even as she makes light of a very personal matter.
There’s a scene towards the end where he pontificates to some young callow 20-somethings about their meanness, that they’re all ADD and don’t care about anything, but you can see Baumbach’s true measure of 20-somethings in the portrait of Florence.
Stiller is courageous and believable sustaining Greenberg’s obnoxiousness. You feel like yelling at the screen, especially when he attacks Florence. But he softens just a bit at the end without a false note.