Film Review: Greenberg

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Ivan Shrank: ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’

Roger Greenberg: ‘I’d go further. I’d go; life is wasted on people.’

(Greenberg, Noah Baumbach, USA, 107 minutes)

Some might naively criticise Noah Baumbach’s new release for having no plot, but the film makes no attempt to establish one, it allows its main character to take a journey, which only starts to progress at the end of the film. Ben Stiller plays the main character Roger Greenberg who is struggling to pin-point where and what he is. He claims that he’s ‘trying to do nothing for a while’. Stiller’s subtle and reflective performance portrays the delicate mentality of this bizarre character. The deliberate stagnation of the film summarises Greenberg’s reality.

The only element of progression occurs when a character make a journey. The audience first meet Florence, played by Greta Gerwig, as she drives through Los Angeles. The frame is filled by her side profile giving no attention to the outside world and solely concentrating on what she might be thinking. The scene combines with music by James Murphy, which helps to reflect complex her emotional vulnerability. The repetition of this sequence shows her desperation to discover what stage she is at in her own life. Ultimately both characters are very similar, despite the generation gap; they are both on a journey unsure where the road will take them. The sense of the characters entering the unknown makes it clear why there is no obvious plot inflatable obstacle course

The background of each character is eventually revealed when Florence enters a hectic and demanding household. She is the personal assistant of Roger Greenberg’s wealthy brother, Philip. His family are about to go to Vietnam and Florence is told that Roger will occupy the guest house while they are away.  One minor detail is that he has just been released from a mental institution.

Roger Greenberg is introduced to the audience with his back to the camera. His first interaction with Florence reveals his strange and fragile character. He is nervous and quiet and does not adhere to the normal conventions of conversation. Florence offers to get him a few things and on his list of requests are ‘Whiskey’ and ‘Ice cream sandwiches’, this reveals his peculiar personality to the audience and hints to his dependence on alcohol.

There is a cleverly constructed scene where Greenberg attempts to swim a length in his brother’s pool. The difficulty to complete this is emphasised by the reverberating sound of a helicopter overhead. Greenberg’s panic and struggle is externally represented through this noise.

While Greenberg is in Los Angeles he decides to get in touch with an old friend and band member Ivan Shrank. Rhys Ifans convincingly portrays a character desperate to progress in his life. He is eager to leave his past of irresponsibility and recklessness behind him. Greenberg becomes aggravated with Ivan on many occasions but does express how much he appreciates his friendship. He is erratic; one minute he apologises for doing bad things to the people close to him, the next he is accusing them of being in the wrong. This demonstrates his unstable mentality and lack of ability to understand others. The audience have great sympathy for his character because Greenberg is living a life he didn’t ‘plan on’.

A nervous romance begins between Florence and Greenberg. There is no romantic atmosphere when the two kiss, the scene is very realistic and intentionally makes you feel uncomfortable whilst maintaining a comical spirit. Greenberg breaks this inelegant situation and goes to stare at his reflection in the bathroom mirror; what is he looking at? What is he questioning? Does he feel frustrated that he’s doing something he may have done twenty years before?

The portrayal of his erratic behaviour is expressed through subtleties. He panics if he does not have his lipbalm and he pulls his sleeve down to cover his hand when he presses the button to cross the road. This close attention to detail reflects Baumbach’s consideration of Greenberg’s fascinating character.

Greenberg expresses his disappointment with life; that ‘it is wasted on people’. He constantly reassures himself that he is doing ‘nothing deliberately’ and becomes defensive if anyone threatens him. Florence observes his vulnerability and becomes fond of him.

At first Greenberg is not a likeable person, he is overly sensitive, unpredictable and rude. As Greenberg’s trouble to live in his present becomes more apparent the audience feel more sympathetic. The film starts to progress in the final scene between Greenberg and Florence where she listens to a voicemail from him. It is spoken in the style of a letter expressing his feelings for her in a jumbled but elegant way.

The film highlights the mentality of people at different stages in their lives. It may not develop any major incidents but that is the point Baumbach makes. Viewers can relate to this film because it shows that there are certain stages in everybody’s life where they reflect upon their past, analyse their present, and think about their future. The blend of introspective music, excellent performances and the quirky niceties produce a realistic depiction of life.

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