'Greenberg' might just be Ben Stiller's finest work.
Stiller himself goes full nutcase, or near enough, in "Greenberg," and while the results won't earn him an Oscar, it turned out pretty well.
As the title character, a guy pausing at mid-life to lick his wounds, heal some old rifts and maybe open a few new ones, Stiller manages quite a nice performance.
Rather than the silly, caricatured buttheads on which Stiller's made his fortune, in "Greenberg" he plays a true butthead, a man with deep emotional scars, a backpack full of guilt and a bushel of regrets. Here's a man whose excess of self-involvement, self-doubt and self-loathing often make him unpleasant to be around — so the fact that he's still an engaging character is a testament to the fine line Stiller manages to walk.
Stiller is paired to great effect with Greta Gerwig in a breakout role as an aspiring musician with her own self-esteem issues, a woman who kind of falls for Greenberg despite his off-putting demeanor.
The film marks a nice rebound for director Noah Baumbach, who made the heartbreaking divorce portrait "The Squid and the Whale," then stumbled with the stagy, phony sibling drama "Margot at the Wedding."
With a story Baumbach developed with producer, co-star and real-life wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, "Greenberg" is a perceptive look at coming to terms with, if not entirely embracing, the life you weren't expecting and by no means wanted.
Stiller's Roger Greenberg is a man whose own musical ambitions led nowhere. Now a seemingly successful carpenter in New York City, Roger is fresh out of a mental hospital after a nervous breakdown, and he heads home to Los Angeles to crash at his brother's place while sibling and family are vacationing in Vietnam.
Forty-year-old Roger tries to reconnect with an old bandmate (Rhys Ifans) and an ex-girlfriend (Leigh), but the actual connection comes with his brother's twenty-something personal assistant Florence Marr (Gerwig), who's helping to look after the family dog.
An awkward, fleeting, I-like-you-this-moment-but-despise-you-the-next love story tries to unfold around them, Roger continually spoiling things with a mean mouth that doesn't seem linked to either his brain or his heart.
Florence and Roger might be kindred spirits only in the sense that she's a sweet, fitful doormat always in search of a good stomping, while he's an often nasty guy with big, heavy boots.
This could have turned into an odious story about emotional sadomasochism. Yet like "The Squid and the Whale," ''Greenberg" has a real heartbeat, a feeling of happy-sad authenticity that makes you understand and appreciate the romantic pull between these irresolute lovers, even if you don't exactly root for it to succeed.
Leigh, one of the leads in "Margot at the Wedding," turns up here for only a couple of sturdy scenes.
Ifans is a quiet scene-stealer. Often cast as a kooky Brit, Ifans here tones it down and becomes a real person, a man who, unlike Greenberg, has succeeded at living with his failures and now simply aims to make the best of what he has.
The film belongs to Stiller and Gerwig, though (and maybe to the adorable dog Mahler, the magnet that keeps bringing Roger and Florence together when it seems they no longer can stomach each other).
Roger and Florence are two people in varying stages of damage, his extreme, hers potentially so if the years and mileage keep wearing her down the way they have so far. They might be the cure for each other or simply a temporary salve — or even the stuff of future cautionary remembrances that begin with the phrase, "Remember that psycho I used to date?"
What's lovely about their relationship, succeed or fail, is its honesty. Though Los Angeles landmarks appear throughout "Greenberg," Roger and Florence are anything but shallow, standard-issue Hollywood lovers.
These are two genuine people making clumsy, hesitant advances and retreats toward and away from each other.
For a fresh face such as Gerwig, it could be a career-making role. For a face as familiar (and generally predictable) as Stiller, it's the finest work he's done, a revelation that the star of "Meet the Parents" and "Night at the Museum" has more to offer than just broad comedy.
"Greenberg," a Focus Features release, is rated R for some strong sexuality, drug use, and language. Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.
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