“Greenberg” (2010). Cast: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Mark Duplass, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Merritt Wever, Chris Messina, Susan Traylor, Brie Larson, Juno Temple, Dave Franco, Zach Chassler, Mina Badie. Director: Noah Baumbach. Screenplay: Noah Baumbach. Story: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Noah Baumbach. www.focusfeatures.com/film/greenberg
As we wend our way through life, many of us face numerous challenges for managing our daily existence. Each of the tests we encounter can be difficult enough in themselves, but imagine what it would be like if we were fundamentally incapable of getting a handle on what’s truly vital in life or being able to materialize those essentials. Such is the lot of the title character in the disquieting new drama, “Greenberg.”
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is a seriously lost soul. The former musician-turned-carpenter has trouble with everyday existence. He spends much of it adrift in life’s minutiae, an obsession that regularly launches him into incoherent stream of consciousness ramblings or angry rants, either verbally or in letter form. It’s a pattern of behavior that probably helped land him in the mental institution from which he recently emerged. But now that Roger’s back in mainstream society, his challenge is to figure out what’s next, a daunting prospect for a 40-year-old who feels life is pointlessly passing him by.
As a start, Roger agrees to leave his New York home and travel to Los Angeles to house-sit for his brother Phillip (Chris Messina), who’s embarking on a lengthy trip abroad with his family. While in L.A., Roger’s told he can call upon Phillip’s capable but somewhat spacey twenty-something personal assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), if he needs anything, an offer that quickly spawns an often-awkward rollercoaster romance. Roger’s visit also allows him to reconnect with his former band mates, Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Beller (Mark Duplass), as well as an old flame, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), all of whom have moved on with their lives while Roger has stayed emotionally and psychologically stuck in place, a realization that reinforces (and sometimes even empowers) his sense of isolation and inability to progress. Nothing seems to give Roger the inspiration he needs to get on with his life, but, given his scattered and perpetually discontented state of mind, there’s no guarantee he’d even be able to recognize said spark if it were to appear. So what’s someone to do as the years pile up and life marches ever forward? That’s Roger’s burden as he grapples with the life he wasn’t expecting (nor wanted).
Taken at face value, “Greenberg” might seem like a frustrating film to watch, mainly because it comes across as an unfocused story about a self-absorbed misfit. But if viewers go beyond its surface qualities, they’ll find a very different—and very engaging—picture, one that’s effective at conveying an important (and potentially unsettling) message: If merely seeing a character engaging in a life of apparent futility makes one squirm, then imagine what it must be like to be someone who lives out such an existence. That might be an especially uneasy prospect if it hits close to home, particularly given the degree of authenticity with which it’s depicted here.
The movie thereby illustrates just how crucial it is to have an understanding of conscious creation/law of attraction principles for managing the basic functioning of day-to-day existence. If we were to lack such an innate awareness about the workings of life, we’d likely wander through it just as aimlessly and embittered as Roger does. And since he seems unable to grasp even the rudiments of the process, he’s consequently unable to assemble the most basic belief platform necessary for creating the foundation of a meaningful existence. Instead, he defaults to his inability to work the process, which only brings him more of what he’s already accustomed to, as well as peers (like Florence) who seem to be just as intrinsically clueless as he is. What’s worse, these circumstances even lead him to frequently proclaim that he’s intentionally seeking to create nothing out of his life, a defensive reaction to this fundamental failing. It’s almost as if he’s creating a Seinfeld-esque existence, only without the laugh track. It’s all so very sad.
Viewers who grasp these notions should be able to see the debilitating difficulty involved in a condition like this, and that, in turn, should help increase awareness of the need for compassion for those so affected. Recall what I noted previously about trying to imagine what it might be like if the shoe were on the other foot: If you were to find yourself in the thick of such circumstances, wouldn’t you want compassionate souls in your life to help show you the way out of your dilemma rather than to simply label you as demented, maladjusted or pathologically narcissistic? (I sure would.)
“Greenberg” is definitely not everyone’s cinematic cup of tea. Those who prefer pictures that are plot-driven, rather than character-driven (as is the case here), are likely to be disappointed. What’s more, those expecting a Ben Stiller comedy (as the film’s somewhat misleading trailer would seem to imply) will likely be disappointed as well, for there are few genuine laughs this picture.
With all that said, however, there’s a lot here for moviegoers who enjoy the unconventional. Director/screenwriter Noah Baumbach shows us, rather than merely tells us, what he’s trying to say, a rich, nuanced approach to filmmaking seldom seen in many of today’s neat, tidy, formulaic productions. The overall style reminds me of the works of Robert Altman, many of whose pictures focused more on developing characters rather than story lines, often with the same degree of quirkiness found here. Also, it’s nice to see Stiller play a role where he isn’t a walking punch line as has often been the case in many of his other movies. He turns in a capable performance in a rare dramatic turn, something I hope he attempts more of in the future.
“Greenberg” is the kind of movie that should help well-adjusted viewers be grateful for what they have. Seeing the greenery from the other side of the fence might be just what it takes to care for one’s own lawn in the first place—and to be happy with the grass that’s already growing there.
Copyright © 2010, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
A lifelong movie fan and longtime student of metaphysics (with an emphasis in law of attraction/conscious creation principles), free-lance writer/editor Brent Marchant is the author of Get the Picture: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies (Moment Point Press, www.momentpoint.com, available in soft cover and Kindle formats). His additional writing credits include contributions to www.beliefnet.com and to Divine Revolution, Sethnet Journal and Reality Change magazines. Brent also maintains an ongoing blog about metaphysical cinema at www.getthepicturebrentmarchant.blogspot.com, which includes listings for the internet and broadcast radio shows on which he frequently appears as a guest. He holds a B.A. in magazine journalism from Syracuse University and resides in Chicago. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.