Sunday, 12 September 2010
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is not a happy man. Problem is, he doesn’t really have a lot to be unhappy about either: a New Yorker who’s in L.A. to housesit for his well-off brother, despite his blunt nature it doesn’t take him long to start up (and then ruin) a relationship with his brother’s personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig).
The more time we spend with Greenberg, the more it seems like he’s driven to ruin whatever good things come his way. He was in a band that almost hit the big time before he knocked back a big record deal, and his friendship with his former bandmate (Rhys Ifans) is uneven at best. Greenberg holds the world to standards that seem fair enough as a teenager but are just annoying as a 40 year old, and his refusal to make a life for himself – rather than the nervous breakdown he seems to have had in New York – seems to be why he’s stuck in the dissatisfying limbo this film displays.
Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) is walking a fine line here, but while Greenberg is largely frustrating as a character the film (based on a script by Baumbach, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Stiller) gives us just enough space to avoid feeling trapped with this strident sourpuss. Stiller is good but not great here – it’s easy to imagine the role being played just as well by a number of actors – but his comedic charm goes a long way towards taking off the edges from a fairly unlikeable character: a better actor would have made this a worse film.
The supporting cast are all excellent, with Gerwig’s finely balanced mix of assertiveness and confusion coming as something of a revelation here as she balances out Greenberg’s studied rejection of pretty much everything with her awkward yet heartfelt refusal to shut herself off. Greenberg might not be that likable, but this often insightful film turns out to have more warmth and humanity than most upbeat “feel-good” comedies can muster.
Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #480)