Thursday, April 1, 2010
Writer-director Noah Baumbach has crafted yet another memorable character in Roger Greenberg. After the remarkable creation that was Jeff Daniels' role in The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach went on to make the overlooked Margot at the Wedding, and he is back again in peak form with Greenberg. However, unlike his last two pictures, Greenberg is not about family issues; it's about individual problems.
To reinforce Baumbach's shift in subject matter, he ships the happy Greenberg family off to Vietnam within the film's initial ten minutes. Roger (Ben Stiller), the exiled brother, is called upon to house-sit. The family already has a more than adequate housekeeper in Florence (Greta Gerwig), so it seems that Roger is being asked to fly out to Los Angeles (from New York) for his benefit.
Roger had a nervous breakdown some time earlier, and has only recently been released from the mental institution. He doesn't appear to be healthy - physically or mentally. As fine-tuned as Stiller looked in Tropic Thunder, he looks very skinny here, and it embodies the character. When Florence offers a trip to the grocery store -- Roger doesn't drive -- he writes down two things: whiskey and ice cream sandwiches.
Roger is introduced, like many great characters are, off-screen. We meet Florence before we ever see Roger, and we also hear his family talk about him. Even when we finally see him for the first time, he remains an enigma. We know he has been released from the hospital, but are not sure why. He sees neighbors swimming in his brother's pool, and he tries to avoid them at all costs. He even cuts some of his hair with a pair of kitchen scissors. Who does that?
Two of the film's key sequences are party scenes. The first one, not too long into the film, is important because we learn a bit more about Roger. He comes across an old flame, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also developed the story with Baumbach), and tries to make dinner plans with her. When she asks him what he's doing in L.A., he calmly replies, "I'm really trying to do nothing for a while." He has an old friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who he played with in a band in their early 20s. We learn that this band could have made it big, but for largely illogical reasons, Roger backed out on the record deal.
There is a romance at the center of Greenberg, and it is a rather awkward one between Roger and Florence. The oddity of it starts with the age difference (she's only 25), and it heightens with their contradictory personalities. Florence is a woman with problems of her own, and she wants to be needed. She has had a rough patch of meaningless relationships, and she wants something real. She thinks, and hopes, that Roger is the man who can do this for her, but by no means is he recovered from his mental instability. They test each other's patience to the fullest extent.
Think of Greenberg as a romantic comedy, but one that does not adhere to the limitations of the genre. For starters, the protagonist is a character that many viewers will hate. It is not easy to buy into a romance with such an off putting character at the center, but Baumbach's tender direction ensures a sense of sympathy. We are supposed to devote more attention towards figuring out why Roger does what he does, rather than simply saying he does bad things. He's obviously a disturbed individual, and to turn against him just because he does rude things is to not fully appreciate the man's complexity. It is an awesome, challenging character study.
Stiller will surprise many with the layered performance that he gives. I have not seen Permanent Midnight, but of all the other Stiller work I've seen, Roger Greenberg is his most dramatic work to date. He is coldly funny, but all of his comedic moments are rooted in deep-seated cynicism. He spends a lot of his days writing letters of complaint to macho corporations, and he despises the world around him. "There's so much crap out there," he says to Florence.
As Florence, Greta Gerwig is charming and likeable, but for me, the standout supporting performance came from Rhys Ifans. As important as the relationship between Florence and Roger is, Ifans' character represents the mid-life crisis that Roger is going through; a problem that might be his most urgent. There is a reason why Roger doesn't want to do anything with his life, and it is beautifully explained through a line of dialogue from Ifans: "To finally embrace the life you never planned on." Unbeknownst to him, Roger has been deteriorating ever since he gave up that record deal, and he hasn't been able to start over. He hasn't been able to accept the fact that his life has been a failure. Until he accepts this, his feet are stuck in mud.
Greenberg is not as polished as Baumbach's masterful The Squid and the Whale, but it is a much more thematically rich experience. It is a unique, bold film that has the temerity to confront difficult human issues in an uncompromising fashion. It might be tough for some to get past the nature of Stiller's character, but if you stick with the film until the end, you will discover the prolific thematic effort that Greenberg is.