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Ben Stiller

"Greenberg"; a film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

Have you ever seen a low-ball showdown? No, it's not a hand of poker on TV, but when everyone in a movie tries to act his or her part more low-ball than anyone else in the cast.

Ellen Page and Michael Cera seem to be the popular low-balling film actors these days. They've been in films with some really good, funny scripts ("Juno" and "Youth in Revolt"). And, it's clear that the Bard of Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor ("A Prairie Home Companion"), takes the cake for rising to the standard of radio's best low-baller.

But it may turn out Ben Stiller, Rhys Ifans, Greta Gerwig and Jennifer Jason Leigh will go down in the annals of show biz as the greatest low-balling entertainers ever to go before an audience: all this in a newly released movie written and directed by Noah ("The Squid and the Whale") Baumbach. It's titled, "Greenberg."

Actually, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David might be jealous that "Greenberg" is a good deal like the TV series, "Seinfeld," in that, when you get right down to what it's all about, it isn't about much of anything. But there is one thing "Seinfeld" has on "Greenberg." "Seinfeld" is FUNNY! So, it follows there's not much ado about "Greenberg" other than being either (take you pick), irritating or annoying.

Why the movie was irritating for me is mostly due to the excellent performance given by Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg. The guy is an emotionally unstable, unhappy, fortyish jerk who has neither yet grown up nor figured out who the hell he is. As I write this, I now realize I had only slightly more sympathy for Stiller's Roger in this movie than for the role Gregory Peck played in "Boys from Brazil."

"Greenberg" opens with Roger just arriving from New York City to house-sit and dog-sit for his brother's family. His visit breaks a long hiatus from Southern California, where he grew up.

Roger's brother’s family is taking time away from the Hollywood home for a business trip, of sorts, to Viet Nam. Yes, a quirky spot to visit for a young family, but get this: Roger-just-in-from-New-York is an unmarried, once almost-famous rock musician who is now a carpenter…yes, I said, carpenter…in the Big Apple. If this is some hidden Jesus of Nazareth metaphor smuggled into the script by Baumbach and Ms. Leigh (his wife and co-writer with a small role in the film), they never get it to jell.

Brother Phillip Greenberg, played by Chris Messina ("Julie and Julia"), has a young woman working for the family as a kind of nanny and dog walker. Greta Gerwig plays Florence, a wannabe singer. She drops by, now and then, to check on the place even though Roger is bunking there now, building a dog house for the family German Shepherd,

Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig

Mahler. Gerwig is a native of Sacramento. She co-wrote and starred in "Hannah Takes the Stairs" and also played in "Baghead." She might be taking off for more of a film career by doing the Florence role. I hope so. She appears as though she might blossom into a tall gal version of Ellen Page.

Both Roger and Florence are terribly vulnerable people, but have totally different personalities. Florence is accommodating, almost door-mattish, while Roger is... well... an insensitive, self-absorbed prick. I just can't think of a better word to describe the character Mr. Stiller plays in "Greenberg," and everyone knows how accomplished Ben is at playing pricks.

Rhys Ifans ("Pirate Radio") plays a former bandmate of Roger's who appears in the movie mainly so Roger can show another facet of that bubbly Greenberg personality, as opposed to how he interacts in private with poor Florence.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Noah Baumbach

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Noah Baumbach

What Baumbach and Leigh give us is an elongated exposition for the narrative and then deftly slip into a spine tingling character study of a schmuck nobody (on or off screen) likes, except for the desperately needy Florence.

Roger is desperately needy, too. However, his neediness takes a little longer to surface from under all his flailing about for identity and a modicum of maturity.

Although "Greenberg" is irritating or, should I say(?), unpleasant, the cast is very convincing playing these rather bored, world-weary metropolitan characters of the present day. Stiller is quite good throughout the film. That he doesn't generate any sympathy may be a testament as to how well he does the part. One could say he's solidly prickish in the title role.

If one were to care for Roger Greenberg, the movie might have had more to say, other than how empty the lives of really selfish, narcissistic men pushing middle-age can be. Or how even emptier sex is for two people when there's no chemistry between them other than how devastatingly lonely and isolated they are.

It seems to me that anyone who thinks "Greenberg" is a hoot, might be more jaded than their years would suggest.

Maybe that's what Noah Baumbach is trying to say.

"Greenberg" official site. Coming soon to Tulsa.

Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2010, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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