film review—Greenberg

by Leonard Maltin
March 19, 2010 5:39 AM
2 Comments
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Sometimes a film takes time to sink in. I didn’t dislike Greenberg while I was watching it—although its central character did get on my nerves a bit. But in the days that followed, I found myself thinking about the people in the story, and how fully developed they were. They seemed genuine, as tangible as the carefully-chosen Los Angeles locations in which the story unfolds. One can’t help but admire that quality.

Thus, the dilemma for me in writing about Greenberg is that it’s a very well-written, well-made film about—

—an annoying character.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach and his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh conceived the story, which is anything but glib. Its treatment of Los Angeles is striking in that it resists cheap jokes, beauty shots, or recognizable landmarks, yet with Harris Savides’ ability to capture its distinctive natural light) is accurate and readily identifiable.

The verisimilitude of the setting suits the characters quite well. I recognized these people. Stiller gives a finely-tuned performance as a man most people would call a loser. Visiting L.A. after a nervous breakdown back East, he tries to hook up with an old girlfriend (Leigh) who’s long since moved on, and rekindles his interrupted friendship with a one-time bandmate (Rhys Ifans), who seems to be the only person who can tolerate him. The only hope for Greenberg is Florence, a capable but unworldly young woman who has no real direction in her life; she’s played with amazing freshness by Greta Gerwig, and her performance, like Stiller’s, helps validate the film.

How can I reconcile these contradictory feelings?

I could take a hint from the film itself and say it’s worth **1/2, or I could say that it’s all a matter of taste. If you’re expecting a Ben Stiller comedy, you’re watching the wrong movie. If you like multilayered character portraits, and don’t mind a laid-back film that’s short on narrative drive, you may enjoy Greenberg.

But if you wonder where the story is headed, or find the protagonist not worth bothering about, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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2 Comments

  • John David Palmer | August 21, 2010 4:35 AMReply

    Mr. Maltin,
    All of your qualifying remarks about the title character being "annoying" are annoying. Who cares weather you like him? You shouldn't even care if you like him. He's a misanthrope!
    Although, I must admit, you are generous considering the movie has a line poking fun at you in particular and your, um, film criticism. I love your warning that this isn't a "Ben Stiller comedy". Well no one will ever accuse you of misleading them.
    "How can I reconcile these contradictory feelings?" you ask. Why do you have to? Haven't you ever met anyone who was difficult? Can't the movie be a study of such people? Why does it have to play into how much you would like them if you had to sit across from them at dinner?
    I know there's no singing in the rain in this movie. This Ben Stiller guy is no Fred Astaire - I get it. Well the era of magic is over, it's all smog and anti-depressants from here on in, Mr Maltin. Get used to it.

  • Susan Still | March 20, 2010 1:28 AMReply

    Dear Mr. Maltin,
    I loved your article on Fess Parker...when I heard he had died, I cried. The Davy Crockett series were quite a memorable time for me. I was about 11 & I had a step-dad that was wonderful but I was an onery little GIRL/tomboy that NEEDED a coon-skin hat for the summer to play cowboys/frontiersmen w/my buddies (boys). I pestered the daylights out of him for months b/4 he gave in. FINALLY I got one along w/a cross-body bag (plastic) and a bb gun. I was in "hog heaven" and hunted the "city woods" pretending. What simply wonderful days when nothing was considered to have a more sinister meaning. Please credit girls w/loving Davy/Fess Parker for his role too. He had meaning for the girls too not just the 'red blooded boys' of that time. Today I'm an avid history buff of the old West and Civil War era....thanks to the westerns at that time and a grandmother who understood and told me of her hard life in the West that began in 1890.Thanks for the piece. I'm glad Fess made such an honorable & wonderful life for himself after DC/DB. I'm sure he will be missed by all who saw his series, movie buffs and his family.

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