"Greenberg" fails with unlikable hero and stunted plot

By Reid Huyssen
On April 1, 2010

You are unable to make a decision because you have no idea what you want. You really don't know what you want because you don't know who you are. Of course, you don't know who you are because you are allowed to be anyone you want. It may be our parents' fault, instilling this feeling of potential entitlement, constantly telling us we can be whatever we want to be. The quarter-life crisis. It may be the detriment of our generation, and it's the central calamity of character in Noah Baumbach's film Greenberg.

Baumbach's talent in both writing and directing is not untested. He has come to the filmic forefront with his quirky screenwriting found in Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach seems to have poured a great deal of himself in the character of Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller). Although born in Los Angeles - where the film takes place - Greenberg returns from New York City to housesit for his brother as a changed, nebbish forty-year-old reminiscent of a young Woody Allen. The Los Angeles cityscape, obscured by smog and shapeless haze, serves as a background that places Greenberg far out of his element.

It quickly becomes clear that Greenberg, despite being in his forties and outside of post-adolescent identification, never overcame his quarter-life crisis. He admits that he is  "doing nothing right now." As a formless entity moving through life without direction or structure, Greenberg is a reflection of the film's narrative itself. Lulled into a complacent and utterly self-effacing existence, Greenberg is prone to occasional bouts of misguided assertiveness that come across as hostility. His unobtrusiveness, rather than allowing for eccentricity and quirkiness, becomes seemingly elitist misery. The character gradually loses sympathetically identifiable characteristics until the audience is left only to identify with his brother's au pair Florence, played by Greta Gerwig. In the end, I would have much rather seen a film called Florence rather than Greenberg. 

Greenberg's rarely comical comments fail to incite more than a chuckle. Greenberg is primarily comprised of scenes that should have all ended ten seconds earlier and are full of throwaway moments that lack any insight into character. Most of the sparse laughs the film rouses are during intensely awkward exchanges and extended silences because there is little else for the audience to do.

Greenberg is visibly out of place in the car-saturated Los Angeles as he walks down the street with bags of groceries. He desperately searches for identification with another human being, but ignores the connections right in front of him. Noticeably uncomfortable at an eight-year-old's birthday party complete with parents, but nonchalant at a teenage rage despite being in his forties, Greenberg lacks the protagonist characteristics with which audiences seek to identify. Greenberg, becoming increasingly puerile throughout the film, tailspins while the audience expectantly awaits the redemption and reformation of character that sadly never comes.

Greenberg is a wasteful, weak, and wandering film that lacks structure and a worthwhile title character. Chalk this one up as a scrawl that reeks of egoism and self-indulgence.

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