Robin Williams, Adam Sandler, and Jim Carrey. Three well-known comic actors who have forayed into dramatic territory. Well, even though he’s done it before in “Reality Bites” and a small role in “Empire of the Sun,” it was Ben Stiller’s time to do it again. “Greenberg” is his latest role that doesn’t ask him try to leave us in stitches.
Roger Greenberg (Stiller) is a carpenter from New York City who comes back to his childhood home of Hollywood to house sit for his brother and his family. What makes this out of the ordinary is that Roger has just been released from an institution after a nervous breakdown. This forty-year old man isn’t entirely happy with life. Fifteen years earlier, he was an aspiring rock musician who threw away his band’s one shot at a modicum of success.
So he finds himself back in Hollywood for six weeks with a dog to look after and a large house to rattle around in. He’s not alone, though. One of his old band mates Ivan (Rhys Ifans) is still one speaking terms with him. There’s also Florence (Greta Gerwig), the personal assistant to Roger’s brother. While this non-driver is intent on “doing nothing for awhile,” life has a way of assigning responsibility to even the most unwilling.
These next few weeks will be a challenge as Roger readjusts to life on the outside, tries to find some element of closure with his past and searches for a path that will lead to him happiness.
Hopefully, by now, you’ve gotten the point that there aren’t a lot of laughs to be found here. Sure, there are some restrained chuckles and plenty of reasonably witty dialog, but come into this expecting more of a drama. Knowing Noah Baumbach’s work (“The Squid and the Whale”) will go a long way toward helping you to know what you’ll be getting into.
Stiller does a great job as an emotionally fragile man who has a knack for putting up walls and pushing people away, only to apologize for it later. As unreliable a friend as he is, you can tell he wants to get better, but is clearly struggling. It’s easy to sympathize with him even if his rationale isn’t so clear.
The real revelation in this film is Gerwig. She is a young actress who has been in some low-profile indie films (the best of the lot, “The House of the Devil” deserves a view) over the years, but nothing of this caliber. Assuming her career continues its upward trajectory, we will be able to point back to her fine contributions to “Greenberg.” Her Florence is a similarly directionless character, although she does have the benefit on being much younger than Roger.
Greenberg’s stagnation in life and disappointments will be identifiable for some viewers. It’s always a bit of a downer when people can’t age gracefully and insist on clinging to the past. We all know someone like that, though. It’s conceivable that Roger and Florence would gravitate toward each other although, her repeatedly giving him second and third chances is kind of uncomfortable to watch. It clearly indicates a lack of confidence on her part, although she passes it off as sympathy for the sick man. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between.
Special features include: a look behind the scenes, a featurette that amounts to Baumbach talking about Los Angeles and an extremely short glance at the feel for the film that Baumbach was seeking to attain.
These indie films have narrow appeal and won’t grab a lot of people who just want to eat popcorn, hear loud noises and have explosions go off on screen in front of them for two hours. Some people who like Ben Stiller and haven’t done their research will pick this up with certain expectations. Many of them will be sorely disappointed. You won’t though, faithful reader. Whether this sounds like your cup of tea or not, you’ll know ahead of time. To those on the fence, this is a very well made and enjoyable film that is easy to enjoy, so long as you know what you’re getting into.
Let’s hear it for actors challenging themselves and trying something new!
Rated R 108 minutes 2010
“Greenberg” will be available to rent or purchase in Allentown, The Lehigh Valley and beyond.