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REVIEW: Greenberg

The movie is as pathetic as its lead character



  • Greenberg
  • Ben Stiller as Roger in "Greenberg."
  • (L-R) Greta Gerwig as Florence and Ben Stiller as Roger in "Greenberg."
  • Ben Stiller as Roger in "Greenberg."
  • Rhys Ifans as Ivan in "Greenberg."
  • (L-R) Ben Stiller as Roger and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Beth in "Greenberg."
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Movie titles that are just the character name kind of annoy me; and not just because I recently saw and disliked the movie Chloe. It just seems like an artsy type of mind set, and it’s not clever. It was fine in the 70s (Annie Hall, Barry Lyndon, Rocky, Norma Rae)…and it’s okay if it’s about famous people (Ali, Amadeus, Ghandi, Patton, Ed Wood).

There are just too many movies like Rebecca, Bronson, Emilia, Mitchell, Ed, Gigi, Gigli, Lola, Stevie, Tess, Marty, Gia…enough already!

Greenberg is one of the few movie name titles that actually works. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t.

It’s also a shame to come to the realization that Noah Baumbach just isn’t a good filmmaker.

He came out of the shoot with The Squid and the Whale, one of my favorite films in 2005. He married Jennifer Jason-Leigh, who has a role in Greenberg, as producing it.

I don’t have a problem with Roger Greenberg not being a likable character (played wonderfully by Ben Stiller). It’s the fact that most of the time he doesn’t have interesting or funny takes on things.

When he rants to his friend, a former bandmate from England, about the loud couple at a restaurant acting like it’s their living room – we can all relate. When he comes back from the bathroom and the waiters sing “Happy Birthday,” he gets furious. I’m sure everyone in the theatre had a smile on their face at that moment.

When he continuously writes complaint letters to companies, I thought that had possibilities. Yet he never complains in a way where we say, “Yes, exactly!”

We realize quickly he’s just a boorish loser.

The film also starts out with one of my movie romance pet peeves; one that starts so quickly, without us seeing why the woman would be involved in it. In the recent She’s Out of My League, the film doesn’t show us why this woman would be interested in the guy she pursues. In this movie, nobody will have a clue as to why Greta Gerwig is interested in Greenberg. He goes to her place, barely makes small talk, before awkwardly kissing her (and doing a few other things, before the sounds of trains become too distracting).

Gerwig is perfectly cast (in a role that Jennifer Jason-Leigh would’ve played 20 years ago). She’s cute, we like her, and she’s not a Megan Fox. Greenberg’s description of her in the film works – she’s that woman at the office you’d immediately have a crush on, but once you’re away from the office, you realize she’s not that hot.

He also comments on her weight and how she’s not thin.

It doesn’t phase him that he’s got problems and the fact that she’s seeing him, much less talking to him, is a miracle.

Stiller plays Greenberg well, as a narcissist that none of us would be friends with. The first 40 minutes I was enjoying it well enough, as we got to know the characters.

There are two early party scenes that are amusing. He comments at one, “This is a kids party,” when he realizes all his friends now have wives and children running around the backyard.

Another party he tries to throw, and we watch with a smile as he watches things safely from the kitchen. His friend mentions Gatsby and his parties. It’s great dialog. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie can’t keep that going.

Late in the film, we’re treated to a third party with a much younger crowd. It has moments that would’ve been amusing (people acting weird while on drugs, finding a dead creature in the swimming pool)…but they don’t seem fresh here.

The difference between a bad film and a good film, can be shown in two examples. In Fargo, there’s a scene where an Asian guy contacts a woman he went to high school with. We watch awkwardly as these middle-aged people have lunch together. She realizes he wants something more. It’s humorous and sad all at once, as she tries not to hurt his feelings. You think about the scene for days later, wondering why he went on and on about his wife dying from a disease, when it was all made up.

In this movie, that scene is done with Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Stiller, who dated in the past. Yet their conversation goes nowhere. Its shows us a bit more about Greenberg, as he tells her about a sick dog he’s taking care of and barely pausing when she mentions her mom being sick. It was a 10 minute scene that could’ve been funny, powerful and interesting. It was none of those things. It merely confirmed what we thought about Greenberg already. That he isn’t capable of caring about anybody but himself. When she’s had enough and is asking the waiter for the check – we feel the way these characters do. It’s all awkward and we just want to leave.

When Woody Allen writes movies with characters like this, they’re interesting (well, aside from that one with Larry David which was awful). We were in interested in Gerwig, but she quickly becomes pathetic when she rides this rollercoaster of verbal abuse with Stiller.

Even the music, which was so great in The Squid and the Whale (I bought the soundtrack for all those Bert Jansch and Loudon Wainwright tunes). In this movie, we have Steve Miller, Duran Duran, and Hammond (a one-hit wonder with “It Never Rains in Southern California”).

There are certainly nice touches. We see Greenburg bring her a hamburger as a nice gesture, but because of what happened previously, the burger looks disgusting.

There just aren’t enough of these moments to sustain the film.

I even liked the fact that Greenberg never changes. That would cliché, and something that probably wouldn’t happen. Even to keep this woman he clearly cares about to some degree.

It also has the worst ending of a movie in a long time. I can tell you it without it ruining anything.

Stiller watches as Gerwig listens to a sweet message he left on her machine the previous day. Her with a Mona Lisa smile, and he with the same expression he’s had the entire film.

This movie gets a D+.

Rent The Squid and the Whale instead.

I’ll be hoping Baumbach isn’t just a one-hit wonder.