One Liner Review:
A very funny black comedy about a selfish guy who is out of place in the world.
In 2005. Noah Baumbach made an amazing little black comedy called The Squid and the Whale. It was about family dynamics, bad parenting, and dysfunctional relationships, and it was funny as hell. But since then, he has been more or less dormant, only turning out the lousy film Margot at the Wedding. Well, now with Greenberg, he’s back and he’s back in style.
The movie isn’t about a whole set of dysfunctional characters like The Squid and the Whale was, but about a single, troubled individual. I suppose you could look at the Squid and the Whale and blame the father, played wonderfully by Jeff Daniels, for most of the family’s issues. Well, Ben Stiller as Greenberg, is almost as selfish, and certainly as interesting a character.
He’s a New Yorker spending a few weeks out in LA to do some housesitting at his brother’s place. His brother has a family and goes away on vacation to Vietnam and leaves this big house all to Greenberg. There’s even a woman who watches over everything in the house, kind of like an assistant, making sure the refrigerator is stocked with groceries and things like that. Her name is Florence and for the first ten minutes of the movie, she seems like the main character. The family is rushing off to leave the house and Florence runs around making sure everything is set. Ben Stiller’s Greenberg is nowhere to be found. But they certainly talk about him and how he will be staying there, setting his character up for the audience.
The first time we see Greenberg is when Florence’s phone rings and she answers it and it’s him, in the brother’s house, wondering why there are people using the pool. In those first 5-10 minutes or so, before Stiller appeared, we might have been starting to have doubts about the movie. It just didn’t feel like it was off to a great start. But once Ben Stiller utters his first lines, concerned about the pool, and the number of people using it, all of our worries go away.
Stiller plays this character perfectly. He’s good at playing an asshole. He’s done it jokingly before (Dodgeball), but also seriously before (Your Friends and Neighbors), and both times he did a nice job. He’s the guy you love to hate. Stiller’s character in this movie is selfish and unmotivated and he often does things that are very hurtful to others without giving it more than a thought.
Greenberg used to live in LA, before he moved to NY, so he has friends and history there. He has one friend, Ivan, played by Rhys Ifans, who he hangs out with a lot. Then he also spends a lot of time with Florence, calling her up to get a drink, making out with her, and having her come around to help him with any house problems.
And there are quite a few of those. The dog gets sick, the pool almost floods, and Stiller’s niece shows up with a friend on route to Australia and throws a wild party. Stiller’s reactions to these problems are often very funny. He’s a guy who thinks everything around him is ridiculous, when really he is the most ridiculous one of all.
He has a couple of meltdown scenes, which are actually pretty brief, but very memorable. One is at a restaurant during his birthday and another comes after Florence tells him a provocative story about something she once did for fun.
These scenes are important to the movie, because it is essentially about his relationships with two characters, Ivan and Florence. And it is through those two relationships that he learns to change and admits his flaws.
One thing I love about this movie is that it delves into Greenberg’s past without beating you over the head with it. There’s the band situation where he and Ivan and some others were in a band and got an offer and Greenberg turned it down. That was their last offer. Turning it down changed everything and Greenberg has never owned up to his mistake. Another situation from the past, that is mentioned very briefly and only in there for those who are paying close attention, listening to every line, tells us of how Greenberg didn’t come to California to see his mother when she was on her deathbed.
There’s a lot there. Psychologically this movie is pretty deep, even if it doesn’t parade this stuff around on the surface level. Greenberg is a complex guy who thinks the world owes him something and it’s exactly for that reason that life hasn’t worked out for him the way he would have wanted.
This is a very smart, very interesting movie. Ifans and Florence help supply answers to this character and help him develop, but there are plenty of other characters and situations that come across his path and add to the story. His ex-girlfriend, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh has a couple of things with him and certainly sheds some light on who he used to be. We watch as Greenberg comes to accept his past and maybe even learn from it. Despite how deep all of this sounds, it’s actually a very funny movie. It’s a black comedy about a funny person who doesn’t mean to be funny and Noah Baumbach spins his story so well that the character feels completely real. Just think about the scene where he asks Ivan what people say about him behind his back. This is clever writing and Ben Stiller takes a great character and runs with it.