Rating: 4 out of 5
Single, socially maladjusted middle-aged men seem to hold a kind of cinematic fascination.
Offhand, one recalls Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, John Cusack in High Fidelity, and Paul Giamatti in Sideways – great, quirky characters who provided some insight in the particular strains of male, midlife malaise that afflicted them.
Theirs were lives lived with frustration, unfulfilled dreams eating away at the soul, latent potential fading away.
The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach's latest film has Ben Stiller taking another similar sullen-clown persona, in the title role of Greenberg. Arguably the plummest role of his career, it affords Stiller the opportunity to fully inhabit a most intriguing character.
Roger Greenberg is, like Baumbach, a 40-year-old man. As the film’s tagline says, “He’s got a lot on his mind.” Fifteen years ago, Roger had stood on the cusp of possible musical stardom, before a fateful decision led to those dreams – and friendships in the day – to evaporate.
Fast forward to the present: he is an unremarkable individual recovering from a nervous breakdown.
Vulnerable and lonely, he has become a grouchy, complaint letter-writing, unemployed New York-based misanthrope. When the opportunity to house-sit his brother’s Los Angeles home for six weeks comes up, he sets forth “trying to do nothing for a while”, so as to steer clear of his darker side.
For anyone who's never had the pleasure of a Baumbach experience, Greenberg has a typically refreshing 'indie' feel, the way it is driven by characters and telling true-to-life conversations that peel away at the years-ingrained complexities that punctuate human personas and relationships.
While a most unconventional romance is on the cards, one would be hard-pressed to call this a romantic comedy – it is unlike any that I've seen, even more left-field than the excellent (500) Days of Summer. The way comedic moments teeter on the edge of tragedy and heartbreak also makes this like few comedies I am familiar with.
Stiller's performance, a wild-eyed tour de force with moments of calm clarity, mixed with apoplectic spasms of anger, ranks among the best of his career; equally, the up-and-coming independent film queen Greta Gerwig – a leading light in the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement – is a joy to behold.
One critic has described her style as acting without acting. She is a true natural as the guileless, awkwardly charming and somewhat adrift Florence, the 25-year-old personal assistant of Roger’s brother.
On, off, on-again, off-again – Florence rides the roller-coaster of Roger’s capricious nature, is hurt at times, and yet can see through his hostility and self-loathing. His anger at the ‘stupidity’ of the world, as he calls it, is really a defence mechanism. His own life stunted, he is deeply bothered by the potential and dynamism of others.
Somehow, the more we see Roger try his best not to fail any further, the more we root for him. Pitifully, he doesn’t have the requisite intellect to match his propensity to over-think things. He’s not the most erudite or witty man, either.
When his pal (Rhys Ifans) opines that “Youth is wasted on the young”, he goes further by saying “Life is wasted on (pause) people.”
Greenberg reflects Baumbach’s ear for dialogue, eye for life, and feel for life’s rhythms. It is a richly rewarding piece of work, another by this director that examines the uncomfortable and daunting moments that plague some lives, especially those twisted around wrong turns.
Bittersweet, beautiful, bewildering, and curiously triumphant, it is simply a brilliant film.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
– Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III