Some people just seem to drift through life, never accomplishing much of anything while life just passes them by. But even so, Roger Greenberg has turned apathy into an art form.
As played by Ben Stiller in the brilliant new film Greenberg, Roger is a 41-year-old New Yorker whose entire life plan currently consists of doing as little as possible. There’s a vague mention that he’s just been released from a psychiatric hospital, and he maintains a constant intense stare, a look filled with sadness and anger and a thousand other emotions he’s too shy to express in any form other than sarcasm and, occasionally, rage.
He’s come to Los Angeles to help house-sit and dog-sit for his highly successful brother, Phillip, while Phillip takes his family to Vietnam for a lengthy vacation. Yet someone else is also hovering around the edges of Phillip’s home and, soon, Roger’s life: a mid-20s blond beauty named Florence (a starmaking performance by indie-film actress Greta Gerwig) who works as Phillip’s family’s assistant and soon finds herself drawn to Roger despite his myriad (and obvious) faults.
Over the course of his L.A. respite, Roger also tries to revive his relationships with his high school best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and high school girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also produces and conceived the film’s story for her husband, screenwriter-director Noah Baumbach). But with the world moving past him and his growing realization that he’s caused his own misery for far too long, Roger has to decide whether to reach out and attempt love after all with this quirky but loving beauty.
Greenberg is almost a one-of-a-kind film, with its only obvious parallel being 2002’s similarly offbeat and brilliant Punch Drunk Love. Just as that film introduced the film world to screen clown Adam Sandler’s unexpected depth as a performer, utterly reshaping his career into a platform for any direction he wants it to go, Greenberg offers Stiller the showcase of a lifetime. He gets the opportunity to run circles around the simple comic Everyman persona he’s played into for the past 15 years, and the result could well be a series of awards during the next Oscar season.
It is a quiet film, about low-key people just trying to get through life without being crushed by the powerful figures lurking around every corner of L.A. Yet it’s also loaded with funny lines and ultimately hope—though viewers should be forewarned that Greenberg handles abortion (not between the main characters) in a matter-of-fact, even darkly humorous albeit sweetly emotional light, and there are two relatively graphic sex scenes, one played for laughs.
Baumbach was an Oscar nominee for his 2005 screenplay of art-house hit The Squid and the Whale, another film heavy on talk and low-key characterization. But it’s clear he’s learned something from that experience and his 2007 flop Margot at the Wedding. With Greenberg, he's turned more deeply inward on his characters to find not just their quirks and bad habits but to also attain a full understanding of people that most people would normally pass by.
Don’t make that mistake. The troubled lovers in Greenberg are well worth knowing.