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Review: Greenberg

A spurious man
By PETER KEOUGH  |  March 24, 2010
3.0 3.0 Stars

 

Greenberg | Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach | With Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brie Larson, Juno Temple, and Chris Messina | Focus Features | 100 minutes
Why does she put up with him? Why, for that matter, should anyone in the audience?

Those are two questions I asked myself while watching Noah Baumbach’s latest descent into post–Woody Allen self-loathing and narcissism. And sadism — it’s bad enough that the title protagonist gnaws at himself, but he also takes down an attractive 25-year-old who’s crippled by low self-esteem and poor fashion choices. True, Roger Greenberg is funnier and less grating than the little shit in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but waiting for him to find redemption, or get his comeuppance, or just get a clue, sorely tries one’s patience.

How patient you’ll be depends a lot on how you feel about Ben Stiller, the reigning icon of squirm-inducing weaselly boorishness. What can I say? I love the guy. As Greenberg, he comes close to the bottoming-out miserableness of his character in Permanent Midnight, though with less sweating and not as many lines of cocaine.

He’s just been released from a stint in a mental hospital; how long he was in for is unclear, but it might as well have been since 1995, the year he pulled the plug on his band, Magic Marker, thereby hurling himself and his two bandmates (Rhys Ifans, as one of them, is a charming sad sack who demonstrates that Baumbach can create nice characters when he wants to) adrift into the alternate universe of adult responsibility.

He’s pretty much ignored the 15 years of technological and cultural change that have taken place since. He cranks up that retro favorite of the ’90s, Duran Duran, at a party, and he has a soft spot for Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California.” As for his impotent rage, instead of venting it on talk radio or the Internet, like everybody else, he deals with it the old-fashioned way, writing letters of complaint to company owners or the New York Times op-ed page.

A pale and twitchy Manhattanite, he starts life anew house-sitting his brother’s Hollywood Hills hacienda, where he’s as uncomfortable as he probably would be anywhere else. Yet when it comes to the new generation of twentysomethings, Roger fits right in. They seem charmed by his anachronistic taste and by his contempt for them and everything they value. And none more so than Florence (mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig), his brother’s “personal assistant,” whose number is available in case Roger needs someone to pick up his whiskey and ice-cream sandwiches.

Good-natured, gangly, and beautiful despite her best efforts, Florence lets herself get pawed by Roger the first time she does an errand for him. She thinks he’s some kind of “genius,” and so she puts up with his insensitivity, his utter selfishness, and his whiny abuse.

So, that question again: why should we put up with it? Maybe in the vain hope that Roger will realize it’s no fun being a jerk and finally grow up. Maybe in the equally vain hope that Florence will recognize her folly and grow up too. She is, after all, rather delightful, even when you want to shake her and tell her to snap out of it. Her tipsy rendition of Paul and Linda McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” earns her membership in the Diane Keaton pantheon of kookiness. I have to admit, though, that what kept me going was the German shepherd. Stricken with illness early on, Mahler was the only character whose fate I really cared about.

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