Since the release of 2005’s The Squid & the Whale following an eight-year hiatus from filmmaking. Noah Baumbach came back with a film that surprised audiences and critics over its portrait of divorce from the perspective of children. Two years later, Baumbach paid tribute to Eric Rohmer with Margot at the Wedding that starred Nicole Kidman, Jack Black, and Baumbach’s then-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. After being in the American east coast for a large portion of his films, Baumbach moved west towards his next project about a man trying to get his life with Greenberg.
Directed by Noah Baumbach with a script written by Baumbach based on a story he conceived with Jennifer Jason Leigh. Greenberg tells the story of a man who decides to housesit his brother’s home following a mental breakdown as he then meets his brother’s personal assistant. The film is an exploration of depression and starting over. Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Merritt Weaver, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Juno Temple, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Greenberg is a poignant yet witty film from Noah Baumbach and company.
Florence (Greta Gerwig) is a personal assistant for a man named Phillip Greenberg (Chris Messina) who is about to go on a six-week vacation to Vietnam to open a hotel with his family. Coming to stay over at Phillip’s house for the duration is his brother Roger (Ben Stiller) who needs a place to stay following a stay at a mental hospital in New York City. Florence has problems of her own having just broken up from a relationship with no idea what to do with herself. Upon Roger’s arrival, the only instruction Roger needed to do at home is to take care of the family dog while Florence helps him out with things.
Roger meets up with his old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) as he also tries to reacquainted with other old friends including his ex-girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is now married. Aware of the changes that his old friends have in their lives, Roger decides to hang out with Florence as they connect through their own melancholia. Even as she invites him to a show where she’s singing. While her friend Gina (Merritt Weaver) isn’t sure that Roger is right for her, she’s interested in him because she feels kind of sorry for him. Even though he can be very angry all the time over everything.
When the dog becomes sick and Florence helps him out, Roger is having a hard time trying to relate to Florence as well as his old friends. A drink with Beth doesn’t go anywhere while he ponders what could’ve been when he and Ivan had a band that was very close to having a record deal that was thwarted by Roger back then. During his time with Ivan as Florence meets Ivan, Ivan isn’t sure about the relationship which is already having its ups and downs. Notably when Florence gets sick and had to go to the hospital. For Roger, he gets an unexpected visit from his sister-in-law’s stepsister Sara (Brie Larson) and her friend Muriel (Juno Temple) where a party happens as it leads to some unexpected events for Roger and the life that he’s leading.
The film is about two lost souls connecting with one another as they spend six weeks together trying to sort out their lives. Yet, it’s also about two people each dealing with their own identities. For Florence, she’s just a 26-year old woman trying to figure out what to do with herself while dealing with a break-up and being used for sexual pleasure with other men. Still, she is someone that is at least able to help people out and try to make something of herself no matter how flawed and young she is.
Then there’s Roger Greenberg who is someone having a hard time relating to the world and has just gotten out of a mental hospital. Upon his stay in Los Angeles, he finds himself having trouble relating to old friends and what they’re doing. The only one that is willing to give him the time of day is Ivan. Ivan however, is a character that is willing to listen to Greenberg complain about the world and everything else. Then in one scene, Greenberg asks Ivan if anyone had said anything about him as Ivan, reluctantly, says the truth about what people say. Greenberg is a man that is complicated and high-strung about everything where even his brother doesn’t help matters as Greenberg is doing his best to do things.
Baumbach’s screenplay is definitely an amazing character study about a man in crisis along with his fascination towards a 26-year old woman. His direction is also fascinating in the way he observes behaviors and events that happens around these characters. Even where he can make a children’s birthday party seem awkward though everyone else except Greenberg is having fun. The direction for the film is also very intimate with conversation pieces in various locations in Los Angeles by allowing some close-ups and two-shots for those scenes. Baumbach also creates scenes with humor that is mostly low-key while not over-dramatizing anything. Including some scenes where there’s a lot going on as one character is trying to be the center of attention. While the film does lag in a few spots, it is definitely one of Baumbach’s finest films.
Cinematographer Harris Savides does an excellent job with the film’s colorful photography as he takes advantage of the sunny look of Los Angeles. Even in capturing the nighttime look of the city in its exterior and interior settings with a wonderful intimacy that is truly gorgeous to watch. Savides’ work is definitely one of the film’s major highlights. Editor Tim Streeto does a fantastic job with the film’s editing in terms of creating amazing montages for a party scene where Greenberg is having different conversations with other people. Also in bringing jump-cuts for scenes where Florence is driving her car as it’s wonderfully stylized for a very unconventional film.
Production designer Ford Wheeler, along with set decorator Elizabeth Keenan and art director Curt Beech, does a very good job with the posh look of the Greenberg home that Roger is living in along with the more middle-class yet casual world that Florence lives in. Costume designer Mark Bridges also does a good job with the costumes from the casual, bohemian dresses that Florence wears to the casual, jeans-sweater shirts that Roger wears with everyone else looking more adult except for the young people Roger encounters. Sound editor Paul Hsu along with mixer Felix Andrews does an amazing job with the film’s sound from the intimate setting at the homes and club that Florence sings to the parties that Greenberg attends.
Music by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem is definitely another of the film’s highlights as it is a mixture of moody electronic music with elements of rock along with folk-driven pieces. Additional cuts from music supervisor George Drakoulias as he fills the rest of the film’s soundtrack with cuts by the Steve Miller Band, Paul McCartney, Albert Hammond, Galaxie 500, Lily Allen, Serge Gainsbourg, the Association, and Duran Duran. The soundtrack is definitely one of the most diverse and creative soundtracks of 2010.
The casting by Francine Maisler is superb with its array of memorable performances. Among them in the small roles include Mark Duplass as a former bandmate of Greenberg, Susan Traylor as Greenberg’s sister-in-law, Zach Chassler and Mina Badie as a couple who often swims in the Greenberg family pool, Chris Messina as Greenberg’s brother, and the dog Sam as the Greenberg family dog Mahler. Brie Larson and Juno Temple are very good as two young girls who party with Greenberg while Merritt Weaver is excellent as Florence’s friend Gina. Jennifer Jason Leigh is superb as Greenberg’s ex-girlfriend Beth who is polite to him though is not willing to go further with him about anything.
The film’s best supporting performance definitely belongs to Rhys Ifans as Ivan. Ifans plays the guy who listens to Greenberg while showing what is going on as he has a great scene that reveals what kind of a person Greenberg is and what kind of man Ivan is at this moment. It’s definitely a wonderful performance for Ifans who manages to let Ben Stiller outdo him only to get him late in the film. Greta Gerwig is radiant as Florence as a young woman who is just trying to find herself while being someone who knows she’s a bit immature and says a lot of things. Even as she is inexperienced in the way she handles things as Gerwig just brings a realism to her role as a lost soul just trying to find something.
Ben Stiller gives what is definitely his best performance in quite a long time during a period of some bad, mainstream-driven comedies where he makes a fool of himself. Stiller creates a character that is at times, un-likeable because he is so angry with the world and couldn’t relate to anything. Yet, there is also someone who is vulnerable and childlike in Stiller’s performance as the moments where’s not talking and just being quiet are very touching. Stiller’s scenes with Greta Gerwig are great to watch in the way interact along with the awkwardness as he allows himself to be funny in subtle moments. It’s definitely Stiller proving himself that outside of comedy, he is a capable and engaging dramatic actor.
While it may not live up to such films as Kicking & Screaming and The Squid & the Whale, Greenberg is a superb film from Noah Baumbach. Armed with fantastic performances from Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, and Rhys Ifans. It’s a film that is a wonderful exploration of self-identity and depression with elements of humor and realism. Even as fans of Noah Baumbach will see this as one of his finest films of his amazing career. In the end, Greenberg is a smart and engaging drama from Noah Baumbach and company.
Noah Baumbach Films: Kicking & Screaming - Highball - Mr. Jealousy - The Squid & the Whale - Margot at the Wedding - Frances Ha - While We're Young - Mistress America - De Palma - The Auteurs #41: Noah Baumbach
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