fri 18/10/2019

Greenberg | reviews, news & interviews

Greenberg

Greenberg

Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig are excellent as an odd couple in Noah Baumbach's latest

'Greenberg': Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Ben Stiller in a study of narcissism

Anyone who saw Ben Stiller in Zoolander will know that he is a very fine actor. He made his over-the-top character both believable and lovable (well, up to a point on the latter, but you know what I mean) while playing the fashion model’s absurdities for every laugh he could get. And now a fascinating counterpoint comes with his touching and beautifully reined-in portrayal of another narcissist, Roger Greenberg, a 41-year-old failed musician turned carpenter who is recovering from a breakdown.

Greenberg has been living in New York for 15 years and returns to Los Angeles to housesit for his younger, more successful brother, Philip (Chris Messina), who is taking his family on an extended holiday in Vietnam. Roger has recently been released from a mental institution and building a kennel for family dog Mahler (music is a leitmotif of the film) will provide a form of occupational therapy. The family’s dogwalker and general dogsbody, the twentysomething Florence (Greta Gerwig), herself a wannabe musician and recently out of an unhappy relationship, is on hand should Roger need anything beyond the ice-cream sandwiches and whisky that constitute his shopping list.

Bored and restless in the huge Hollywood Hills home, Roger tries to reconnect with everybody from his previous life; his ex-bandmates (led by Rhys Ifans) and former girlfriends, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote Greenberg with the film's director, her husband Noah Baumbach (Noah and the Whale). We gradually see that, while everybody else has moved on and made new lives for themselves, Greenberg hasn’t. He is still the self-obsessed, selfish and utterly unself-aware knob he always was. His decision to break up the band when they were about to sign a major deal was on a ridiculous point of principle, and now he spends much of his day writing to corporations complaining about inconsequential things that matter only to him. To mix a metaphor in American parlance, he sweats the small stuff while missing the big picture.

His old friends react with a mixture of irritation, exasperation and pity, but the lovely, naive and essentially good Florence sees her vulnerablity reflected in Roger - and gradually, haltingly, these two lost souls are drawn together. But like real life, the relationship is complicated, fraught with misunderstandings, messy (there’s a horribly believable, horribly awkward sex scene) and they both have to make adjustments to find even an imperfect fit.

This is a film that is content to tell its story slowly and unshowily, and the humour is subtle - often through the choice of soundtrack music. Baumbach draws some lovely performances from everybody involved, particularly from Ifans (the band's lead singer, now in IT), who touchingly conveys the compromise involved in trading a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle for a steady job and the joys of parenthood, while Jason Leigh’s cameo as an ex-girlfriend who has long forgotten Greenberg and is appalled that he wants to hook up again is cringemaking and delightfully funny at the same time. Stiller, for those who may have doubted he had it in him, is a revelation, but at the film’s heart is an astonishingly delicate performance by Gerwig. Never have neurotic and kooky been so attractive as a couple.

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