Reviewed in August 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Noah Baumbach. Cast: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Merritt Wever, Mark Duplass, Chris Messina, Susan Traylor, Brie Larson, Juno Temple, Dave Franco, Norizzela Monterroso. Screenplay: Noah Baumbach (based on a screen story by Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Twitter Capsule: Gorgeously lensed, deftly acted, with harsh feelings to confess about people who wear out their welcome in your life

Photo © 2010 Focus Features/Scott Rudin Productions
Baumbach succeeds more richly here than he did in Margot at the Wedding at building a movie around a fiercely unlikable protagonist without sealing us off from the character. He gives us reasons to care, as he did in The Squid and the Whale, but as tetchy as his debut film could often be, Greenberg is tougher, staking even trickier, more indirect claims on our sympathy, and betraying a welcome if well-disguised core of gentleness. The photography captures a flat but buttery light in the exterior shots, which is beautiful in itself in an entirely and appropriately quotidian way, and thus also creates a visual envelope in which Greenberg could tip at any moment into giddiness or frustration, promise or insult. Interiors are generally more drab, though even here, the surprisingly rich colors in Harris Savides' lensing and the charged spaces he fosters between characters are an unflagging asset to the movie. The acting is also very deft, particularly from Greta Gerwig, whose harried, perpetually apologetic twentysomething is no less heedless or self-deluded for being so hyper-conscious of some of her own worst habits. Rhys Ifans is also quite touching as Roger's longtime friend Ivan, very nearly the only person who will still show up when Roger calls, maybe because Ivan has worse addictions to kick than his bond to this chronic narcissist, or maybe because he's too kind or too passive to reject him, or maybe he imagines he's atoning for other errors by subjecting himself to tirades and moods for which he knows he isn't responsible.

As a general principle, the reasons why Roger Greenberg doesn't much like anyone, and why nobody much likes Roger, reliably generate punchy, intriguing insights about adults whom you wish would fade away (especially those whom you thought you were already rid of, but weren't), and about kids whom you suspect will grow up badly. The script, not unlike its central character, is willing to speak about what lots of movies and lots of people suffer through in silence, or else never face up to. But where Roger often embodies that candor in a spirit of aggression or self-indulgence, Greenberg wins major points for nervy honesty, and even more for the mordant humor that often thrives within even its most disenchanted moments. The writing occasionally feels forced, and Stiller, while very strong overall, can't always navigate the character's improbably quick shifts from relative equanimity to hostile acting-out. The whole premise that has brought Roger to L.A. at the film's start feels a bit flimsy, but the rhythms and structures of most of the scenes are jagged and atypical in really rewarding ways. The first and second meetings between Stiller's and Gerwig's characters are perfect examples, and the film as a whole, overtly literary in conception, plays like a story or a novel on basically unhappy themes that you'd gladly revisit for favorite lines and especially sagacious moments. The sum of Greenberg is unavoidably unhappy, but its journey accommodates wit and depression, bluntness and allusion, surprise and certainty. The man is a nightmare, but the movie is a keeper. Grade: B+

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Testy character studies like this are very tricky, especially when their obvious debts to 1970s American cinema need to come off as more than empty stylistic homage. The degree of difficulty only increases when you bother to extend compassion to all your characters, as is the case here (and it might easily not have been). These sorts of movies also have a habit of ignoring or actively downplaying color, light, and formal composition as a way to convey a specious sense of truthfulness, so it's an unexpected coup and an object lesson for similar films (see: Cyrus) to see how much care has gone into framing, lensing, and palette in this case. Greenberg is inevitably, productively divisive in tone and topical focus—and this in itself strikes me as a good thing—but you cannot say the filmmakers aren't trying to use all the resources available to the form.

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