26 March 2010

At the movies: Greenberg.

Greenberg is the titular subject of Noah Baumbach’s new film, played by Ben Stiller in a way that aims to reaffirm how great he can be as an actor when he wants to be. But Greenberg is also a state of mind; a quasi-narcissistic, neurotic life paralyzed by not only the process of aging but by the way that language, expectations, and alienation have cut us all off from one another.

Stiller’s Greenberg, specifically, is a carpenter who once was an almost-rock star, recently released from a mental institution. He’s come to L.A. to keep an eye on his hotel developer brother’s palatial house while their family takes a several week excursion to Vietnam. He’s not completely on his own, though. He has his brother’s assistant, Florence (the magnificent Greta Gerwig), to rely on, and from this springs an awkward and deeply resonant kind of relationship.

Baumbach builds on the foundations he’s been trafficking in since 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, following the masterful one-two punch of The Squid and The Whale and Margot at the Wedding, and with the input of his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, who produced and helped develop the story, he’s been able to distill something amazing onscreen.

Nothing I’ve seen all year rings truer than an altered Greenberg talking to a bunch of twentysomethings about the meanness that drives their interactions; “The Chauffeur” in the background, party favors all about, and one man facing the void of modern courtesy.

It will haunt you, even as Stiller gives his best performance in ages and Gerwig shines like a supernova in her first big film. You take joy where you can, but that’s not what drives you. It’s the regret, and the confusion, and yes, the hope.

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