Ben Stiller takes off his clown shoes and rubber mask for Greenberg, a comedy that frequently teeters on the edge of despair before pulling itself back with a well placed joke or uncannily accurate observation. Stiller looks gaunt and frail, his small size accentuated by the mass of unruly hair he has accumulated recently, and his turn as Roger Greenberg is enough for me to forgive him for Night at the Museum 2, Meet the Fockers and any number of other atrocities that he has committed to celluloid over the past decade.
Stiller’s character is an OCD misfit; a carpenter from New York who returns to LA for six weeks to house/dog-sit for his successful brother while he takes his family to Vietnam. Here he meets Florence (Greta Gerwig), the organised but subtly quirky assistant to his brother, and they develop a relationship which, like every other aspect of this film, feels realistic and cliché-free. This is a rare treat indeed, as nothing is idealised, and the couple’s every encounter feels natural and unforced.
It is revealed early on that Greenberg has just left a psychiatric hospital after a mental breakdown, and his social manner flits between shyness and an extroverted, combative aggression which are both pegged down by a self-assuredness that deny him the ability to accept criticism or make apologies with any ease. This has clearly resulted in the destruction of many important relationships over the years, and although his time in therapy has left him seeking partial redemption as he rejoins the LA crowd of his youth, it is clear that fundamentally he has not changed.
Like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Greenberg sees no reason to be anything other than honest, and it is this honesty that strikes others as rude and bitter. His character is epitomised in the letters of complaint which he writes to corporations and government authorities over the course of the film, all of which are hilarious, but all tinged with an Aspergic obsession for order and a world that conforms to Greenberg’s often unreasonable ideals.
His relationship with Florence is juxtaposed with his reunion with former friend and band mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans), now working as a computer technician and suffering under a temporary separation from his wife and child. Greenberg and Ivan were part of a band that was offered a record deal fifteen years earlier, and it was Greenberg’s controlling, overconfident nature that lost them their one shot at fame. Ivan has sympathy for Greenberg in his current state because he got over addiction to drugs in his twenties, although Greenberg fails to see the connection with this rehabilitation and his current position as a recently released mental patient. Ifans’ performance is just as strong as his co-stars, evoking both melancholy and humour.
What marks out Greenberg from its contemporaries is the script, which deals with the themes surrounding its lead’s middle aged dilemmas with wit that is not so polished as to be beyond the realms of everyday conversational speech. Scene after scene rolls by, developing the characters causally but completely, and there are some truly stand-out encounters. I particularly enjoyed the way in which Greenberg’s brother Phillip and his wife were characterised during their preparations for the trip to Vietnam, defined entirely by their dictation of menial tasks to Florence in a manner that was both polite and callously dismissive.
Greenberg is funny and painful in the same breath, and it begs to be seen, because its message is poignant and ultimately warming without being stereotypically sentimental or romantic, and its ending is frustratingly poetic, which is all I’ll say on the matter. See it.