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Unlikable lead drives plot of ‘Greenberg’

Movie Review | 2.5 out of 5 stars

Published: Monday, April 5, 2010

Updated: Monday, April 5, 2010 07:04

Like so many dramedies in the past few years, "Greenberg" tells a coming−of−age story about a man who is decades past adolescence. The film raises important issues of identity and provides countless triumphant moments of dark comedy. Unfortunately, the story's lack of direction and the unlikeable protagonist mean "Greenberg" falls short of success.

In his seventh directorial effort, director Noah Baumbach crafts another indie tale of woe and regret. Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is a New York−based carpenter with a history of mental instability who comes to Los Angeles to housesit for his brother, Phillip (Chris Messina), and his family, who are vacationing in Vietnam.

Since it is Greenberg's first time on the West Coast in years, he reconnects with old friends. Many of these friends were his band members before Greenberg refused a contract that could have landed the group its big break.

Rhys Ifans, a talented British actor recognizable to American audiences from "Notting Hill" (1999), appears as Ivan, Greenberg's only true friend despite having lost the most due to Greenberg's age−old mistake. In this sense, the story is one of redemption — the hero tries his best to reconnect with those with whom he has lost touch and to become a better person.

At the same time, Baumbach tells a love story between Greenberg and the quirky−yet−endearing Florence (Greta Gerwig), Phillip's assistant. As she tries to tie herself to him emotionally, he consistently pulls away, afraid of abandoning his plans to "do nothing" for a while.

This tangled web of storylines fails to come to any grand conclusion. Instead of walking a path of romance or self−improvement or both, as some would argue "Garden State" (2004) accomplished, "Greenberg" wanders, feeling longer than its 107−minute running time. By the film's abrupt end, its titular character seems to neither grow nor improve in any visible manner.

In terms of romance, the chemistry between Stiller and Gerwig works despite the age difference between their characters. Florence is adorable and chipper, and exposes Greenberg to her youthful love of life. She is simultaneously tragic and impulsive in her decisions, engaging in a hook−up that she doesn't want and singing onstage at a performance that only a handful of people attend. Her old soul drives her to be with Greenberg, and their relationship, though flawed and unlikely, at times warms the heart. Both Gerwig and Ifans hold their own in wonderful supporting performances.

In a rare foray into drama for Stiller, "Greenberg" is reminiscent of Jim Carrey's turn in "The Majestic" (2001) or that of Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" (1989). Stiller even looks different, with longer locks and eyeliner, and acts differently, with a weight appropriate for Greenberg's personal history.

Stiller remains at his best when comedic, such as in one scene when he feels the effects of a line of cocaine at his niece's party. In fact, he is particularly unbelievable in scenes that call for an angry outburst, usually with Florence at the receiving end. It's impressive to see how far Stiller has come as an actor, especially from past outrageous comedies such as "There's Something About Mary" (1998) and "Zoolander" (2001), but in reality, he has ways to go before pulling off a dramatic lead completely.

To be fair, Stiller is not the only problem with "Greenberg." The character, developed by screenwriters Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is, at his finest moments, awkwardly charming. At his worst moments, Greenberg is an insensitive, overly critical, overgrown teenage boy who seems to judge everyone in his life and reject all criticism of himself.

Greenberg condemns everyone and everything from a pet taxi service for its inadequate floors to a stranger in a restaurant who laughs loudly. His negative personality makes it impossible to relate to him and become emotionally invested in his feature−length plight.

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