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Prickly Greenberg strikes close to home
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Prickly Greenberg strikes close to home

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Greenberg
Opening March 26


Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is not the kind of guy people usually like to be around. He's purposely "doing nothing" at the moment, spending a few weeks at his brother Phillip's (Chris Messina) palatial Los Angeles estate while he and his family are on vacation in Vietnam. While an excellent carpenter, the single 40-something uses his quick wit and acid tongue to bring those around him down, deflecting comments about himself with a vindictively offhanded hubris that's often startling.

So it's a little odd when he strikes up an uneasy romance with Phillip's personal assistant Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) as the two bond over the family dog's health troubles. Florence finds Greenberg's many vulnerabilities endearing, while he discovers himself drawn to her oddly withdrawn downbeat beauty. But "doing nothing" is not a recipe for success, and the more Greenberg tries to remain an aloof curmudgeon, the more he puts in jeopardy the few friendships he still has. Soon, not even Florence is finding his act amusing, and unless he works to embrace the life he has and not remain disappointed in pissing away the one he hoped for, his last chance for happiness might walk out of his life forever.

Noah Baumbach's Greenberg is a rough one for me. Without a doubt, this is a return to form for the filmmaker, the movie almost achieving the same level of acerbic genius of 2005's The Squid and the Whale. But like all his pictures (save maybe his 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming), this one is again populated with people difficult to embrace and not exactly fun to be around. The movie is almost too realistic in tone, idea and narrative for its own good, and much of it speaks to the ethereal cruelty of life and aging, which hits too close to home.

For my part, I'm perfectly okay with that. I'm all for movies that make me uncomfortable, ones that try to look at unpleasant situations with truthfulness and honesty refusing to shy away from the harsher realities that surround us. There just has to be a point to all the pathos, a reason behind the pain, and if there is and if it ends up moving me in some way that feels genuine, then I'm more than happy to leave the theatre with my heart wounded and my emotions a tiny bit frayed.

That is exactly what Baumbach does. Working from a story conceived by himself and co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh (playing one of Greenberg's past loves), his screenplay doesn't pull its punches and doesn't ask for everyone sitting in the multiplex to fall in love with it. Its main character is lost in a wilderness of his own design, and if the things he's going through sometimes mirror some of things many in their 30s and 40s often feel about their own lives, then that's all well and good.

Yet there is heart here, and there is a reason for hope. Greenberg's interactions with his friends, most notably a superbly cast Rhys Ifans, have a twinkle behind them that's ultimately touching. Sure, it takes some time for the film to work its way to that point, and yes, there is a lot of disturbing stuff you have to slog through to get there, but what would life be without the work of self-discovery? Things don't come easy, and finding your way is sometimes like trying to find a needle buried in 10,000 haystacks.

Baumbach and company are unafraid to let viewers decide for themselves whether or not Greenberg's journey ends for the better. His relationship with Florence is as up and down as they come, as the young woman is willing to give the grieving man her heart even though she knows he's probably only going to break it. But whether or not the pair finds happiness isn't the question the filmmaker wants to answer, since getting the two in the same room to stare at one another and ponder their potential is more to his liking then traditional Hollywood romantic platitudes.

Stiller has never been better. While I'm a huge fan of Tropic Thunder and firmly believe it to be the actor's best film, his work as Roger Greenberg is the finest acting of his career. Without his presence, I seriously doubt this movie would be worth enduring, as the character comes so close to being insufferable that it takes a singular talent to make him worth the effort of getting to know. Stiller inhabits Greenberg with ease, and even when the man is at his worst, there is something about what the actor is able to do with him that made me willing to hang on his every word and wonder about each next move.

Stiller is matched by Gerwig. Last making a memorable impression in the otherwise uneven House of the Devil, her performance as the jittery and unconfident Florence is one that had me mesmerized right from the start. Watching her grow as her relationship with Greenberg ebbs and flows is something else, and I silently cheered as the backbone slowly starting to rise within her. There is an openness, a naked gentility yet cloistered insecurity to Gerwig that had me spellbound, and her climatic last look honestly brought me to tears.

I'm not going to say I loved Greenberg. While I laughed and cried, so much of it struck nerve endings that hurt far more than I care to admit. The anguish Baumbach inflicts is both palpable and timely, and everything infuriating about it is grounded and agonizingly familiar.

But even though that's so, I have a feeling that, much like the director's equally prickly Margot at the Wedding, this one has the chance to grow on me. Once you get past the upsetting bits, there is an honest realism that resonates profoundly. Greenberg's story isn't uplifting and it isn't for the faint of heart, but it is one that's full of deeply funny insights which many - for better and for worse - will undeniably relate to.

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