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Review: Ben Stiller rises above thin 'Greenberg' plot

In a rare dramatic role, Ben Stiller (with Brie Larson, left, and Juno Temple) is one reason to see Greenberg. Greta Gerwig is the other.

Focus Features

In a rare dramatic role, Ben Stiller (with Brie Larson, left, and Juno Temple) is one reason to see Greenberg. Greta Gerwig is the other.

Greenberg (R) (105 min.) — "Hurt people hurt people" is a bit of psychobabble spoken in Noah Baumbach's latest downer about damaged people spreading the gloom. The phrase neatly summarizes all of Baumbach's films, notably his Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Squid and the Whale and the deservedly overlooked Margot at the Wedding.

Baumbach hasn't before presented a hurt person like Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), who compulsively hurts everyone around him. Roger was recently discharged from a mental hospital, and probably too soon. He's a New Yorker at heart, transported to the Hollywood Hills to house-sit for his brother who's on a family vacation to Vietnam.

Why Vietnam? Because even Baumbach's most "normal" characters have quirks beyond merely odd. That's how he writes, and it's one reason why — despite Baumbach's ability to craft wickedly succinct dialogue — his films often buckle under their own sense of smirk. "Life is wasted on the living," Roger says in Greenberg, obviously channeling the filmmaker's belief.

Nothing much happens in Greenberg, yet Stiller and co-star Greta Gerwig make inconsequence tolerable with solid performances. Gerwig plays Florence Marr, the personal assistant for Roger's family with emotional baggage of her own. They're a match made in hell, both exceedingly needy and unable to shake off each other, no matter how badly one acts.

Stiller's casting is one thing Baumbach gets right. He has done so many good and bad comedies over the years that we expect Stiller to be funnier than Roger will ever be. That lends a nice sense of tension to each scene when Roger appears to be getting a grip on himself, only to lose it. This is Stiller's best dramatic performance — heck, just about his only one — since Permanent Midnight a dozen years ago. He should try it more often.

Gerwig is a minor revelation, a captivating although not classically beautiful woman with wonderfully expressive eyes. Her Florence isn't as pitiful as her circumstances would suggest, especially her crush on Roger. Sex isn't a weapon to Florence; more like a white flag of surrender to anyone who'll make her feel wanted. The role isn't complex, but Gerwig makes it appear so.

If only Baumbach gave these characters something else to do. Greenberg is merely a series of social mistakes — angry outbursts at the wrong time and awkwardly sorrowful makeup sessions afterward. The movie feels longer than it is. Repetition can't be entirely disguised by razored repartee. It's worth seeing only for Stiller and Gerwig, who find traces of humanity beneath Baumbach's nihilism. That isn't as easy as it sounds.

Greenberg opens Friday only at AMC Woodlands 20 in Oldsmar. B-

Steve Persall, Times film critic

Review: Ben Stiller rises above thin 'Greenberg' plot 03/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 1:47am]

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