Review by Jack Foley
THERE’S an observation early on in Greenberg that states “hurt people hurt people”. It’s a perfect way to describe the films of Noah Baumbach.
With The Squid & The Whale, the writer-director examined the breakdown of a marriage as seen through the eyes of the children most affected by it, while in Margot At The Wedding he explored sibling rivalry, as well as abuse.
In Greenberg, his latest, he follows the fortunes of two damaged individuals: Ben Stiller’s neurotic title character, a failed musician recovering from a nervous breakdown, and Greta Gerwig’s 25-year-old Florence, a person who suffers from being too open and willing to please.
The ensuing comedy drama is, thankfully, a vast improvement on Margot At The Wedding, but it’s still an uncomfortable peek into a world populated by people who are difficult to relate to.
Compounding this problem is the fact that, by his own admission, Stiller’s central character is “trying to do nothing for a while”, which means Baumbach’s film is content to do the same.
It’s therefore a glimpse of a life going nowhere. Greenberg is self-obsessed, neurotic and prone to socially awkward temper tantrums.
His best friend (Rhys Ifans) is similarly broken and harbours a resentment for the way in which their band broke-up “back in the day”. Florence, meanwhile, is a pleasant distraction… but someone who Greenberg seems happy to hurt as soon as they get close to one another.
Sadly, I struggled to find their relationship convincing for even a second, even though the performances from both are good in their own right. This, in turn, deprived the film of any real emotional grip.
The meandering pace that Baumbach sets is also a problem, depriving the movie [and its characters] of any real dramatic impetus until a couple of last act confrontations given it some kick.
It’s then that ghosts are laid to rest and characters’ finally confront each other, thereby allowing Stiller, Gerwig and the under-used Ifans a real moment to shine.
Prior to that, Stiller offers good value as Greenberg, wearing the haunted look of a shattered life in a convincing manner, while Gerwig is endearing, if similarly neurotic in her own sweet way, as Florence. It’s just the pedestrian and willfully arty way in which the story unfolds that’s the biggest problem.
Greenberg is therefore best described as an actors’ piece that offers an intriguing alternative to Stiller fans who usually dig his comedy persona.
But it’s also as difficult and emotionally stinted as the characters it observes, making this an ultimately frustrating and distancing experience.
Running time: 107mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: October 4, 2010