“Wish it wasn’t too late to get my medical degree.”
Greenberg from director Noah Baumbach (who also wrote the screenplay) is an intense, focused character study of a man who never ‘gets it.’ Most of us probably know a Greenberg. We probably even avoid him, but here we have the distance of the camera, and it’s very easy to enjoy this film even though there are moments when we’d like to shake some sense into the film’s main character.
Greenberg (Ben Stiller in a non-comic role) is a single man in his 40s who flies from New York to LA to housesit for his affluent, married brother. The brother is taking his wife and family to Vietnam for six weeks, and in the meantime, Greenberg is left with the family dog. In the six-week period, he’s supposed to watch the house and build a dog house. There’s the unspoken sense that Greenberg is being done a favour in this request (although he thinks it’s the other way around); it’s a holiday of sorts–a change of pace in the land of endless sunshine. He has full run of the sprawling house and use of the huge pool. He’s told that if he needs anything, he can call on reliable Florence (Greta Gerwig) who’s the family assistant/nanny/general dogsbody.
There’s not much information about Greenberg’s past except for the detail that he played in a band in high school to “meet chicks.” The band was offered a record deal, but Greenberg refused to sign. There went the band and there went Greenberg. What has he been doing for the last twenty years? These days he’s a carpenter and he’s also suffered a nervous breakdown. Again no details of just how long he spent in the mental hospital or even when this took place. How far is he on the road to recovery? This is an unspoken question which simmers underneath the surface as the film progresses.
Greenberg is clearly a man with problems, and one of the first things he does when he arrives in LA is to write a letter of complaint (one of many as it turns out) to the airline about the buttons on the seats. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that with Greenberg’s niggling antagonism to the minutiae of life, he’s also a bit of a germaphobe. The key thing about his behaviour is that he’s one of those people who readily find fault with everyone else, and he isn’t shy about delivering lectures either. It’s all about what the world is doing to Greenberg and never the other way around.
Once in town, Greenberg tries to reconnect with his old friends–some of them are willing to at least talk to him. Ivan (Rhys Ifans) for example very kindly and patiently tolerates the one-sided relationship he endures with Greenberg. Ivan has problems of his own, but he’s expected to drive Greenberg around town and listen to constant diatribes against the world, Starbucks, or Greenberg’s pet hate of the moment. Greenberg never stops to consider how he treats people or why his relationships fail.
Greenberg is obsessive, self-absorbed and immature. He sees the world as a flawed place full of people who annoy him or want something for him. Greenberg strikes up a disastrous relationship with train wreck Florence while nursing secret longings for former girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh). In two contrasting scenes Greenberg tells both women that he’s basically choosing to do nothing with his life. Beth says “that’s brave at our age” while Florence thinks it’s “cool.” This contrast in reactions says a great deal about where Greenberg’s peer group is in terms of priorities. His old friends are now married, have children, and in some cases are going through divorces. No wonder Greenberg, who’s the last person to ever find fault with himself, feels so comfortable hanging out with teenagers. He doesn’t realise that he’s a joke to the youthful crowd.
In another marvellous scene, Greenberg meets Beth and wants to dredge up the faded details of their relationship. Beth, who’s obviously longing to be somewhere else, can’t even remember the stuff Greenberg still nurses. Has he exaggerated the importance of the relationship over time or was this the single most important relationship he’s even had? In the meantime, he plays fast and loose with Florence–a character whose personal life is a mess. While Greenberg chews everything over and finds fault with others, Florence drifts along giving to others and reserving little for herself.
Greenberg is a little gem of a film. No fireworks. No big explosions but a well-crafted character study of a man who wants to reach out but just doesn’t know how.