Serious Stiller

“I’m impressed by you. You seem really fine doing nothing — it’s like you don’t feel all the pressure to be successful.”

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is doing nothing. And he’s doing nothing to change this. But when he returns to his native L.A. to house-sit while his brother is away on vacation, it becomes clear that changes are due in Greenberg’s life. He quickly meets Florence, his brother’s young and sunny assistant, while also becoming reacquainted with old friends for the first time in 15 years.

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Greenberg has clearly taken some bad turns in his life. After turning down a major record label against the wishes of the rest of his entire band shortly out of college, Greenberg moved to New York to become a carpenter, soon followed by psychological troubles requiring hospitilization, leading to his current state of inertia. But a large part of Greenberg’s problems are a result of his sulky attitude.

“Greenberg’s” strength lies primarily in its skillful production. The cinematography is unique, like pictures from an old disposable film camera or the lighting of a sun-soaked late summer evening. The casting is refreshing, including both new actors, as well as known actors in novel roles.

Greta Gerwig, a hitherto unfamiliar name, performs impressively as Florence Durr. She is charming in the role but still very real — steering clear of the danger of being too beautiful or too perfect, into which so many leading Hollywood actresses fall.

Stiller also does a good job as Roger Greenberg. While this certainly isn’t the first time Stiller has acted in a comic-tragic role, he appears in “Greenberg” as a more human version of his past performances. Perhaps it is the graying hair, or perhaps it is the often more-than-PG content, but Stiller seems more mature and truthful in this role — similar to when Adam Sandler played a shockingly tragic Charlie Fineman in Mike Binder’s “Reign Over Me.”

After a fight with his former bandmate, Ivan Schrank (Rhys Ifans), Greenberg defends his own flaws by pointing out some of Ivan’s own: “They say that you play the victim.”

And it’s true — each of the film’s central characters has some weakness he or she allows to become a personal crutch. Ivan, too, easily falls into the role of victim, while Florence lacks any semblance of assertiveness and Greenberg is mired in egocentric “could-have-been’s.” What is particularly striking is their passivity toward their life problems. Florence laments to the man she picks up at a party early in the movie that she leads a life in which no one cares whether she gets up in the morning. And by the end of the movie, this has changed. But one still wonders why it is that Florence herself does not care more about the decisions she makes in her life.

“It’s huge to finally embrace the life you never planned on,” Ivan tells Greenberg. And this is the movie’s saving motto — the final solution to the characters’ many woes.

Ultimately, though, Greenberg does not do enough to remedy the neuroticism and self-involvement that make him so unlikeable toward the beginning of the film. Even though he finally lets someone new into his life, there is something ephemeral about this happy state of affairs. Greenberg is always waiting to be saved, but once he has been, you wonder how long he will stay that way – and whether he was really worth it in the first place.

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