He's a self-absorbed crank.

Greenberg

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

            "Greenberg." As in Roger Greenberg. Ben Stiller has created a character that no one could possibly love, and yet here we are in a darkened theater, rooting for him to change so we can do just that. This is a guy who walks through life without cracking a smile, whose head is the war room for a flood of battling rages, who is nasty to anyone who crosses his path. He's a self-absorbed crank.

            We first meet Roger as he arrives from New York to house sit his brother's upscale family lair in Los Angeles while they vacation in Vietnam. Vietnam? That, along with the house, tells us that the brother was at least an achiever. Roger is a failed garage band man whose mind dwells on the smallest details without ever noticing the bigger questions like "What do I want my life to be?" Credit a fine performance by Rhys Ifans as Ivan, former band buddy who has managed to grow up in the years since the breakup of the group.

            Angry at a seat that refuses to recline, Roger writes an angry letter to American Airlines; too much traffic noise in New York? Mayor Bloomberg hears from him. All of daily life is a series of imagined stumbling blocks for Roger, and he would rather stumble than figure things out. His life is an ordeal caused by nothing.
 
            In the very first scene we meet Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), household assistant and savior of the Greenberg brother's family. As Florence races through traffic on last minute pre-departure errands, she is the poster girl for accomplishing detail with dispatch. Within moments, we realize that actress Greta Gerwig is not only authentic, but comfortable. Is she even acting? Haven't you known dozens of people whose sentences drift off into space because they begin with a question they simply can't answer? Gerwig's Florence has both heart and ability without direction for either. As they explore each other warily, Roger pounces repeatedly on Florence's openness and vulnerability with the cruelty born of his confusion. She is kind; Roger is not.

            Their mutual assignment for now is Mahler, the big old lazy dog who racks up more than $3000 in vet bills while his masters are away. Florence cares for Mahler from love, Roger from duty. But Mahler is the one being who draws Roger out of himself. Otherwise, Roger complains and whines about everyone and every thing.

            At one point, Florence says of Roger, "You can tell a lot of normal stuff is hard for him." You bet. Watching Roger Greenberg is a grueling experience precisely because the normal stuff of life is his preoccupation. The bigger stuff is something he simply hasn't addressed. Both he and she are stuck without purpose or dreams. If anything saves us from the daunting challenge of trying to understand Roger Greenberg, it is watching Greta Gerwig create Florence. She is writer/director Noah Baumbach's gift to the audience.

 


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