Movie Review: Greenberg- A Difficult but Successful Film That Showcases the Director’s Strengths in Mood and Character

Self-involved people have usually been portrayed in Hollywood as humorous because of their inability to perceive other people’s problems, perspectives, and are completely engaged as to how their world is supposed to work. Examples can usually be seen in Woody Allen films, such as Manhattan or Annie Hall, or modern examples are explored greatly in the HBO comedy show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where Larry David expects people to act in accordance to his world view with hilarious results. However, Noah Baumbach now takes a more realistic if not tragic look at how self-involvement can hurt other people in his new film Greenberg. Baumbach is an interesting film auteur with such films as The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Kicking and Screaming. Known more for his ability to present moody cinema in a pleasantly simple technical style, Noah Baumbach isn’t what you would call an accessible filmmaker and Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller in a dramatic role, isn’t an accessible film. But the film is far from being a poor one, in fact, its Baumbach’s strongest work in years balancing an unlikely protagonist with a well developed story about opening your eyes to the world around you and taking responsibility for your life and actions. While the marketing campaign for this film was quite off, probably because everyone felt uneasy marketing a drama with Ben Stiller, it provides a good film experience with an important and relevant message in a time lacking personal development and accepting responsibility for your life when it seems to be slipping away.

Simple yet guided can describe all of Baumbach’s films and Greenberg doesn’t stray away from the auteur’s style. It tells the story of two people, the first being a hapless mental case named Roger Greenberg who plans to do nothing in his life now after being released from a mental hospital exuding the attitude and lifestyle of a man who is completely denying any sort of ambition. The other main character is a young woman named Florence who is trying to find herself after college and sleeps around but does so mostly out of boredom. Florence and Roger end up meeting in both of their life crises when Roger moves into his brother’s house to babysit it while he is gone on vacation and Florence is the Greenberg’s house assistant. Beginning a relationship on an extremely awkward foot, Roger seems unable to really connect with anyone because he is focused on the past, while Florence is too preoccupied with the leisure and pleasantry Roger has to offer to see that he is too self-involved to really dedicate himself to anyone. Roger hasn’t changed in all of his years and still acts as though he is a child, defending his decision that ruined his best friend’s career as a musician while also trying to get back with his ex-girlfriend, who he cheated on, during her divorce. It’s difficult to watch this incredibly unlikeable and destructive protagonist but his eventual character arc has a strong statement and a modern relevance to a society that sometimes encourages poor behavior and irresponsible actions.

If there is any hesitation as to seeing this movie because of the particular actors in it, including Ben Stiller and relatively unknown Greta Gerwig, please don’t let that influence you. Ben Stiller, known for his over produced hit or miss comedic material, delivers a convincing if not soul searching performance of a man who just simply doesn’t get the fact the he is too focused on himself. It’s a dry performance but the dialogue and delivery are convincing allowing them to accentuate the film’s desired tone and direction. Greta Gerwig, who plays the vulnerable Florence, is quite good and can be expected to obtain more roles after this deep and moving performance. The rest of the cast is filled with appropriately unknown actors but the two recognizable faces, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rhys Ifans, both give great performances that showcase the well developed characters in Noah Baumbach’s script. This subtle and simplistic film would not work well if the performances weren’t spot on, but luckily they are and the film works in its entirety despite its lengthy run time.

Baumbach succeeds in delivering a film atmosphere of Los Angeles that resembles that of Woody Allen’s New York. The city works as a backdrop as well as a pawn in the relationship that is developing on the screen, for example, LA is a city where a car is needed yet Roger doesn’t drive forcing the sometimes reluctant Florence to pick him up and drive him places. It’s the best kind of romance film because it doesn’t exaggerate situations but plays around with simplicity and character flaws, which are the main ingredients to why relationships may or may not work out. Florence and Roger’s relationship isn’t the only important one here, because Roger’s best friend Ivan also reluctantly stays around his destructive personality until an awakening to a possibility of a better future shows him that Roger isn’t a good friend. Once everyone becomes disenchanted with Roger he is forced to make that transition from being a child to being an adult, taking responsibility for his decisions. Greenberg is the closest thing to a Woody Allen film that we’ve had in decades yet has that dry and simplistic touch that Baumbach himself is known for, which makes for a unique and interesting dramatic cinema experience.

Speaking as someone who hasn’t truly cared for much of Baumbach’s work but has respected the autuer’s attempts at being a unique filmmaker, Greenberg is probably his best work since his debut film Kicking and Screaming. It’s successfully dry and pleasantly written while borrowing a stylistic touch here and there from renowned director Woody Allen, never in imitation but always in guided referencing. While poor marketing might cause people to believe this is a comedy when it is in fact a tightly written drama with good and great performances, this will probably just be a pleasant surprise rather than a disappointment. This could be Stiller’s Truman Show or Punch Drunk Love, considering he carries himself well in this dramatic role that combines the atmosphere and location use of Woody Allen’s Manhattan with the unpleasant protagonist from Martin Ritt’s Hud. Greenberg isn’t an excellent film but it has plenty of strengths that will remind us that Noah Baumbach is a truly inventive storyteller, both in mood and character.

Grade: B

4 Responses to “Movie Review: Greenberg- A Difficult but Successful Film That Showcases the Director’s Strengths in Mood and Character”
  1. Juan Carlos says:

    The movie was a bit too dry for my taste. It could have been a better.

  2. heesee says:


    I found this website when I googled “Greenberg movie analysis”. I’d heard about Greenberg on a top-10 films-that-no-one-watched list, and knowing how Stiller has been growing as both an actor and a director, wanted to see how he would handle this kind of material. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised for the most part.

    I had a question for you, though – I’m trying to figure out why Baumbach took pains to have a particularly earth-tone background in this movie (lots of green and brown, especially). I’d also be interested in your take on some of the symbols in the movie (e.g. the puppets, the dead possum (?) in the pool, etc.).

    Thank you – I’m glad I found this website. It’s really quite wonderful!

  3. dinabee says:

    I love this film. I focused on the same questions as did heesee. As for the hues, I suspect there is some play with the seasons of autumn to represent the current stage of life that Greenberg is in; not the traditional thinking of autumn as “old” but certainly at the end of his vibrancy. This juxtaposes Florences’ burgeoning youth (even her name florence), which should still be vibrant, lush, and hopeful. They dress Greenberg like a tree trunk most of the time. “Berg” is a mountain. Unmoveable. He is really stuck. The dead animal in the pool. I just saw the film and need some time to really work that one over, but Greenberg was at a party full of hopefuls playing russian roulette with drugs and their lives. His perspective on play and risk and possible death is very different than theirs, and I felt this highlighted that he is so clearly in a different reality. The puppets…Well as a device we saw how he initially was superficial and dismissive of them, in the middle he was uttlerly rejecting and lacked appreciation of them as a gift, and later, when there was some historical depth to their relationship, he seemed sentimental about them when he got the “devil” to the matched set. It was a good tool to demonstrate the evolution of thier relationship. As for why they were puppets, per se, I kind of feel like this was a “toy” that was an object that didn’t really fit anyone’s developmental age. Not hers, not his, and not the intended 4 year old’s. No one really knows how to be their own age in this film. I have spent 3 days thinking about this film. I love this director.

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