Ben Stiller won a lifetime achievement award at the MTV Movie Awards last year. It sort of turned into a send-up of lifetime achievement awards but it got me thinking thoughts. Could we live in a world where Ben Stiller wins more lifetime achievement awards? Like the Oscar one? Maybe the SAG one, if that’s a thing? (Sidebar: Does the Lifetime Network have a lifetime achievement honor? I feel like they should. ‘The Lifetime Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes successful, go-getters who have a demonstrated record of navigating the waters of cheating spouses, teenaged child-stalkers, and myriad other modern problems with ease.’) Realistically, I know we won’t have lifetime achievement awards in ten-year’s time because we will be living in the waterworld, but it never hurts to dream. Ben Stiller seems to be a prime candidate. He hasn’t gotten to that level of racking up the critical darling roles yet, but the streets is watching what he has been doing. Sometimes, though, it is tough to buy Mr. Stiller in some places.
Like in this movie, Greenberg (see what I did there), it is sometimes tough to accept Ben Stiller. However, the film gets past that and turns into a fun romp! By fun romp I mean a comic drama filled with questions about life, expectations, getting older, mental illness, and auto-immune diseases!
Greenberg focuses on Roger Greenberg’s return to Southern California after a nervous breakdown in New York City, where he works as a carpenter. During his time in California (Full Disclosure: That link just takes you to a video of the Phantom Planet song), Roger reconnects with old acquaintances and new-connects with his brother’s assistant Florence. And man, do they ever CONNECT.
What I am trying to say is that their relationship involves sexual intercourse.
The film also is another Noah Baumbach joint. You may know him from his other films such as The Squid and the Whale or the Will Ferrell soccer movie, Kicking and Screaming. He had some help on this one, though. Jennifer Jason Leigh is given a story credit, so I think she came up with and helped with the plot. She also gets to act in the movie.
In the spectrum of Jennifer Jason Leigh roles, I think this falls between Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Single White Female in terms of intensity. However, in terms of general Jennifer Jason Leigh appreciation, it is equal to those films!
And that’s in a relatively small role! Rhys Ifans (I know him mostly from Little Nicky) balances out the scatterbrained pessimism of Greenberg nicely as Ivan, his closest friend. You could say that this guy is as cool as a cucumber but that would be wrong. Cucumbers should be deemed to be as cool as Rhys Ifans. That phrase probably started at one time, but people were tired of figuring out how to pronounce Rhys and Ifans. So, cucumbers got the call-up.
While the film is called Greenberg, it is really Greta Gerwig’s film. Gerwig plays Florence. Her easy-going nature and caring manner work nicely against Roger Greenberg’s litany of almost memorisitic concerns. Which is good, since he’s a DICK sometimes. But let us not clutter the paragraph with unhappy thoughts; we clutter with Gerwig thoughts! Gerwig possesses a magnetism of reality that served her well in films like this one and this one (which inspired songs like this one [Not “California”, sorry, but still good!]). She also is able to pull off the combination of long-ish skirt and t-shirt that few humans can.
My boy A.O. Scott wrote an article about Ms. Gerwig that explains many of the things at which I am trying to get. Occasionally, he says crazy things like “She is more goose than swan” and “When she takes off her clothes — which is not infrequently” (counterpoint: She is a swan!, It was probably essential for the plot. Lay off, A.O.!) in order to show her closeness to a reality that is not often approached in mainstream American movies lately. While Greta Gerwig may represent some things that are happening or changing in movies, I don’t think she actively set out on that path. Instead, I think she just wanted to tell some stories through moving pictures. Which she does delightfully.
A lot of the movie rises and falls with Greenberg’s capriciousness. The trailer sort of makes him look like an indie everyman, what with all the “All My Friends” playing and the James Murphy sound tracking the movie, but he is less likable than that. Which is not a fault of Mr. Stiller’s! In fact, I think many of the scenes would turn too bleak if not for the comic timing and resumé Stiller possesses.
There are a lot of vibes from Mr. Greenberg. Some vibes echo Lucas from Empire Records. Other vibes come mostly from coincidence. For instance, Greenberg can’t swim much like this guy
That’s fine and not a big deal. Next time, Greenberg, be aware of the circles in which you are trafficking. Things overlap occasionally.
While a bunch of Greenberg is about a type of specific person’s problem set, there are a bunch of things to be learned from it. Such lessons include “Go to Australia with your step-niece with some weird hugging subtext” and “Don’t forget how to drive.” Maybe those are not the most important lessons. There are more lessons! The movie is worth it for the lessons.
And those t-shirts! With skirts! LCD Swoooooooonsystem!