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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Smart cast defines awkward ‘Greenberg’

    Ads for “”Greenberg”” promise a Ben Stiller you’ve never seen before. That’s not entirely true. Stiller’s stint as 40-year-old, newly discharged mental patient Roger Greenberg brims with the self-centeredness of Derek Zoolander, the social gracelessness of Gaylord Focker and the misguided ambitions of “”Arrested Development”” illusionist Tony Wonder. Most of all, though, like widower Chas from “”The Royal Tenenbaums,”” Roger is damaged.

    The film from Noah Baumbach, director of “”The Squid and the Whale”” and Wes Anderson’s co-writer on “”Fantastic Mr. Fox,”” is nothing short of awkward. An awkward man pursues an awkward girl in the awkward metropolis of Los Angeles. Generation gaps, arbitrary social customs and a dog with an autoimmune disease all complicate the courtship.

    After 15 minutes of exposition that introduces Florence (Greta Gerwig), a 24-year-old professional assistant to the wealthy Greenberg family, the awkward romance begins. Roger is fresh out of an asylum, and is a guest in the lavish home of his brother’s family while they gallivant through Vietnam. Florence walks the family’s German shepherd, Mahler, and takes care of Roger’s shopping lists, populated in an early scene exclusively by ice cream sandwiches and whiskey.

    Their chemistry is strained from their first meeting, where Roger references a dated song by The Trammps that Florence apparently has not committed to her CD library. Their first (abrupt) sexual encounter a few days later is about as embarrassing as a Holocaust joke. That two so vastly unlike individuals begin falling in love with each other is a bit unbelievable but nevertheless drives the narrative through a snarky gauntlet of psychodrama and daily heartbreaks before reaching the romantic end.

    Transplanting an actor known for his comedic roles into a serious role is a big risk, but when done right it can pay dividends (see Jim Carrey in “”Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.””) As Roger Greenberg, Stiller is a master of appearing as either a tragically sympathetic lonely-heart or a contemptible jackass, depending on the scene.

    We hate him for verbally assaulting Florence for telling a juvenile story. We love him for verbally assaulting Starbucks and American Airlines with scathing complaint letters. We hate him for toying with Florence’s heart. We love him for exposing his own in an endearing, coke-induced voicemail.

    Just as indispensible as Stiller’s performance, though, is Gerwig’s. The young talent most recently known for her tortured role in “”The House of the Devil”” beautifully counterbalances Roger’s inconsistency. As Florence, she is sincere, open and a little on the nerdy side (“”I’m wearing kind of an ugly bra,”” she confesses sheepishly upon first fondling with Roger). Whether dancing drunk in nylon tights, giving Roger secondhand children’s marionettes for his birthday or nursing an ailing Mahler back to health, Florence is irresistibly adorable and charmingly childish. The biggest mistake of the film is neglecting her for a good 20-minute segment toward the end.

    Ultimately, what binds Roger and Florence is their mutual terror of aging. Roger never stops questioning where the hell his life has gone; Florence never stops worrying where the hell her life is going. Though the initial attraction between Roger and Florence is scarcely explained and audiences are doomed to watch Roger repeat the same misanthropic mistakes over and over, “”Greenberg”” is endearing, smartly written and superbly casted. This untraditional romantic comedy is essential viewing for Baumbach fans, confused post-grads and anyone who has ever gone crazy or been in love. It may not be a unique role for Ben Stiller, but it is easily one of his best.

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