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February 5, 2011

Greenberg (2010)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Actors: Ben Stiller, Greta Garwig, Rhys Ifans

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Synopsis: Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) house-sits for his brother in LA.

Review: Even though Greenberg possesses the thinnest of narrative threads – Ben Stiller’s socially dysfunctional, fortysomething New Yorker coming to house sit for his brother in LA – the unhurried and laconic way that deceptively slight tale plays out, actually masks a richer and more humane story underneath.

One key element of Greenberg is how it acts as an extremely wry outsider/ East Coast/ Jewish (interpret it as you will) commentary on the banalities of an LA lifestyle that is often portrayed as uniformly glamorous and sun-drenched. In Greenberg, LA is filmed in murky greys, and Greenberg’s desire to walk everywhere is shown as totally alien to LA’s gridlocked, sprawling mass of highways.

Greenberg also does interesting things with its central character, presenting Greenberg as a man not only battling clinical depression, but also suffering a crisis of confidence about his age (his hilarious mantra is that even though he’s 41, he’s just concentrating on doing “nothing”). Against this, Baumbach cleverly gives reason to suggest that Greenberg isn’t totally innocent from the pathology and history that has led him to his present state of malaise.

If you’ve read the review so far, you might think that Greenberg is a sombre film, but (further credit to Baumbach here) it’s actually not. Greenberg features numerous ‘comic’ sequences and quotable interludes, and their success has to do with the little recognisables in each situation – such as when Greenberg flips at being centre of attention at a surprise birthday meal, to his stoned tirade about the increasing precociousness and desensitisation of the younger generations.

Although reminiscent of some of the elements of Mumblecore cinema (whose affected naturalism often feels conceited), Baumbach creates a more rounded picture of his dramatic universe by mining the cadences of natural conversation, the strange rituals in social situations, and modern society’s ever-growing obsession with physical and mental well-being, to such strong effect.

In concluding the film, Baumbach does a fine job of honouring the overriding sense of realism about Greenberg’s inertia (in material terms, not much has changed since the beginning of the narrative), although there is enough of a sentiment to suggest that though he may never be his own best friend, at least Greenberg has started to take responsibility for those that are in some way dependent on him (his new on-off girlfriend and his jilted ex-bandmates). (February 2011)

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