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Directed by Noah Baumbach

Ben Stiller has spent the most lucrative part of his acting career refining his screen persona as a sullen, narcissistic pratfall factory. History has suggested there is more to him–both as a comedian and as a dramatist–but history also suggested that he did two Night at the Museum movies and something called Meet the Fockers. Director Noah Baumbach has been making films for the past fifteen years that explore the accumulated damages that shape us into people that are things like sullen or narcissistic. He has a catalog of imperfect films, with The Squid and the Whale previously standing as the clearest testament to his incredible potential. Greta Gerwig has been working tirelessly since her acting debut in 2006 perfecting a laid-back, naturalistic style of acting in no-budget mumblecore flicks.  She doesn’t so much disappear into roles as roles disappear into her and the New York Times recently suggested that she “may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation.” Greenberg, the new film from these talents, is a startlingly realized piece of art, and is the blessed point of convergence for career best work from all three.
Set in everyone’s favorite purgatory, Los Angeles, Greenberg studies Roger Greenberg (Stiller), an irritable, aimless 40-year-old carpenter, and Florence Marr (Gerwig), an apathetic, also aimless, mid-20s housekeeper, and the ways in which their lives mirror and collide with each other.  Baumbach appropriately opens on Gerwig, who owns this film in every way but titular, running errands and attending to the Greenberg household.  The Greenbergs are prepping for family vacation, and Phillip (a very funny Chris Messina) informs Florence that his brother will be coming to town to house and dog sit (!) and to lend him a hand if necessary. That’s the set-up, and the clearest plot, of Greenberg, and then Roger arrives and the film follows the two leads as they grudgingly participate in dual existential crises.
Rest assured, this is not the offbeat indie rom-com you might reasonably fear.  Baumbach not being Braff, Florence and Roger’s first meeting is punctuated not by the best song in the entire world ever, but instead by a completely graceless Stiller soliloquy about “It Never Rains In Southern California” and Florence’s quick departure. Their relationship just gets more uncomfortable from there, and the film unfolds in a low-key and uncomfortably familiar way around them. Roger attempts to find tranquility in his stagnant failure, Florence works to secure some sort of ambition–or at least feeling–and tertiary characters, who have no business being this unique and well-realized, quietly work through their own shit while Greenberg carries on about himself. The refrain “hurt people hurt people” is uttered several times, lending a subversive pithiness to all the torrid happenings.
If this all sounds bleak, it sure is, but Greenberg is also the straight-up funniest movie Baumbach has directed.  Of course, this is funny at a high price and most of the big laughs are derived from painful realities about characters.  One scene finds Florence telling Roger a story that upsets him. The comedic timing of his complete overreaction and exit is spot on, but it, of course, still leaves Florence visibly hurt and Roger frighteningly incapable of processing his emotions. There are a few comedic moments that feel strained or out of place–Stiller’s loquacious letters of complaint to corporate America are an oddly blunt device given all the stellar character work everybody is doing–but the space between comedy and tragedy here is largely absent.
Stiller’s work as Roger is worthy of all the praise it has been getting.  He does more than just cash in on his years of sourpussing about in more expensive movies–he deepens and explores the pain of his character in a way that was only hinted at in his good work in The Royal Tenenbaums. It doesn’t matter that Roger is a terrible, infuriating man because we see Roger as Gerwig does: pitiable, sure, but mostly confused, and in need of a hand. Gerwig, too, is outstanding, heartbreaking, and possibly the funniest actor featured. Florence Marr as a character is much more personable and giving than Roger, but she’s nonetheless in desperate need of help, and Gerwig conveys that within the opening credits. Her captivating screen presence here suggests she’d do just as well in a film titled Marr.

So Noah Baumbach has made another movie ostensibly about sad white people, but what he shows us is just plain human. It’s about how we change, or don’t, when the world changes around us.  It’s about how we react to tenderness, and how we perceive, or don’t perceive, ourselves in those moments. Roger and Florence aren’t heroes and they’re definitely not role models; they are a harrowing image of loneliness and mental incapacitation.  And Greenberg’s not a movie about growth or love or purpose–it’s a movie about being flawed, hurt, people.

-Emmet Duff

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