Ben Stiller always plays the awkward role, so Greenberg is no exception.
If you were to ask what Greenberg was about, the most apt response would take about 90 minutes to give because it’s one of those movies that excels at being about not much at all. With a lot of talent in its cast and a script that’s more real than real, Greenberg does what it sets out to do startlingly well: nothing.
Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a man so awkward and bipolar that he seems always embarrassed to be himself in the company of other people. Greta Gerwing plays Florence Marr, Roger’s brother’s childish and neurotic personal assistant.
The movie begins with Roger traveling from New York to Los Angeles to house sit and take care of the dog for his brother because he wants to “do nothing for a while.” If there’s anything house sitters are good for, it’s that. From there, Marr and Greenberg predictably fall in love with each other, even though it feels like their relationship is being played in reverse and could be punctuated on both sides by “kinda.” Ultimately though, it’s the kind of story that serves primarily as a backdrop for its characters to be awkwardly funny and neurotic. And for that purpose, it works – moving when it needs to move and stopping when the characters need to sit down for a minute and have a cigarette.
Of course, this is only to be expected for a film by Noah Baumbach, writer/director of Oscar-winning The Squid and the Whale and co-writer with Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic and the Oscar-nominated Fantastic Mr. Fox. Baumbach is proficient at writing expressive, natural dialogue, that is capable of making you cringe with laughter at how unexpectedly real it all sounds.
Composer James Murphy said he wanted the soundtrack to be “a backdrop for what’s happening … [and] let the emotions be done by the directing and the shooting and the acting.” The music sets the score for some costume choices that draw needless attention (Roger’s muted Marty McFly and Florence’s attack of the giant green jacket), random happenings and erratic behavior.
Characters are all fully-realized and well-rounded, Baumbach said in a conference call. On the subject of Stiller and the character of Roger, that was “a 50/50 collaboration … he so inhabited the part and so transformed the character,” Baumbach said.
It comes from a lifetime of people watching and listening to the fake conversations no one has any interest in, because that’s all that Greenberg’s characters do. That’s the movie’s appeal – it does its own thing and it does it better than most, without making a big deal out of itself.
Somehow Greenberg manages to pull a narrative out of such a bizarre string of events, while providing a half-heartwarming, half-cringe-inducing slice of life to enjoy.
Archimedes Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.