Noah Baumbach does not write simple, one-dimensional characters. Each and every one of his films is filled to the brim with complex characters who are not simply there to be the traditional likeable protagonist. His films and thus characters occupy that much murkier grey area, which whilst certainly more realistic, makes his films marmite to cinema audiences. Greenberg is no different. If you enjoy Baumbach’s deeply flawed central characters, then you’ll enjoy this tale of Ben Stiller’s failed musician Roger Greenberg who agrees to dog-sit for his brother in L.A whilst he goes to Vietnam with his family.
If you are looking for an immediately likeable and relatable lead man, then perhaps this isn’t for you. For Greenberg can be quite an unpleasant human being at times, whether that is to his to0-loyal-for-his-own-good friend, Ivan (a brilliant Rhys Ifans) or the mostly chirpy, equally lost Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s assistant. Greenberg is struggling to readjust having been released from hospital and finds an almost kindred spirit in Florence, who feels, particularly in love, like she is floating in the wrong direction. Their friendship is no walk in the park and we get many moments where Greenberg is quite simply in the wrong. Yet somehow Ben Stiller (working with a tight Baumbach script) manages to make him sympathetic despite his many drawbacks. Gerwig is equally fantastic, never putting a foot wrong in playing Florence. Whilst Stiller’s is the marquee performance, Gerwig’s understated work almost steals the show from beneath him. Her struggle is less marked and yet almost as affecting as Greenberg’s in the end.
It is a fascinating watch overall, thanks to the central pair in particular. The script works with a lot more strands than perhaps most thought it would, and for the most part addresses them all well before the close. Yet really it’s not that type of movie to tie everything nicely into a bow at the end. It would have felt like a cheap ending for this aesthetic.
There is a great underlying sadness, as there is with many a Baumbach film, but it constantly manages to sustain some levity and whilst there is no emotional catharsis in the same way as that found in other movies about similar subjects, there is a some muted pay-off which feels fitting for such a unique movie.