If director Noah Baumbach (The Squid And The Whale) at least deserves credit for taking up the challenge of something possibly never attempted before, which is making compelling in a movie a bunch of really boring and annoying people, the question more to the point is, can he actually succeed in pulling it off in the downer drama, Greenberg. Shot in hazy gloom as if through the eyes of someone over-medicated on Prozac, the film nearly drowns in its own deep funk, though occasionally surfacing with a few unpredictable lukewarm upbeat surprises.
Ben Stiller is the Roger Greenberg in question, a transplanted forty year old New Yorker, former musician and recovering ex-mental patient house sitting in LA for his fabulously wealthy and successful brother who’s taken off for a family vacation to Viet Nam. Profoundly cynical and dragging himself through his midlife crisis existence like a dedicated loser, Roger temporarily defuses his chronic anxiety by writing complaints to airlines about faulty reclining seat buttons or to NYC Mayor Bloomberg about horn honkers.
Ambivalently receptive to the clumsy advances of his brother’s insecure twentysomething assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), Roger asks her out on a few inevitable disaster dates, almost begrudgingly and as an afterthought. And while not quite over his obsession with a former girlfriend who has long since married (co-writer Jennifer Jason Leigh), Roger engages in woefully awkward sex with Florence, while complaining that her uncooperative bra is wrapped around her like a bandage.
Paralyzed by his own inability to communicate with other people and frightened by what he perceives as the casual self-confidence of younger generations, Roger attempts to smooth the edges off his caustic personality with a self-medicating combo of cocaine and Zoloft, when not randomly dumping the sweet but perpetually whining and needy Florence. And occasional visits with old friends at dreary upscale LA house parties aren’t therapeutic or helpful either, for Roger or the movie audience.
The predominantly lethargic proceedings and downcast moods can be vicariously contagious for viewers, and not in a good way. Moments of peculiar, quirky tenderness do arise, though too few and far between. One refreshing episodic high point in particular, touches on an abortion, which is refreshingly presented without value judgments or moral views attached. And which is topped off with of all things, a get well burger.
Greenberg: Squeezing lemonade out of far too many lemons, with periodic dramatic CPR between vignettes highly recommended. Pass the Prozac.