It’s not often the title character of a film doesn’t appear in the first few scenes. But in Noah Baumbach’s simultaneously resonant and fleeting new film Greenberg, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), just released from a mental hospital, materializes some twenty minutes into the narrative. Instead, Baumbach begins with a lengthy opening sequence surrounding the scattered life of Greenberg’s wealthy brother’s personal assistance Florence (Greta Gerwig), a young Los Angeleno looking for a connection anywhere. This switch in character introduction allows Baumbach to develop Roger and Florence’s relationship in a unique way, gradually building their conversations on the quirks and nuances of each person’s tainted point of view. Their roller-coaster relationship produces some genuinely aching moments, revealing two complex characters surrounded by a sea of artificial interaction, nearly consumed by the hazy Los Angeles locale and self-indulgent suffering.
Through the casual pacing of the script and Harris Savides’ gloriously brumous cinematography, Greenberg becomes more about other people’s interpretations of Roger than the man himself. While the rest of the world, including old friends and lovers, find Roger’s mid-life crisis an offshoot of his youthful arrogant malaise, Florence sees him freshly, a worthy open book in a town of closed off souls. And the real joy of Greenberg comes in watching this relationship deepen over the course of time, organically hitting the expected romantic plot points without being heavy-handed, finding improvisation in the small shared moments. The rest of Baumbach’s characters don’t get the same luxury, with maybe the exception of Roger’s best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), and their trite complaints and bitter judgements push Roger even further into mental isolation. As a collective universe, Baumbach’s characters mostly seem lost, but the most dynamic seem to understand that clarity of purpose and loyalty is the only way to stay sane.
While not nearly as inviting as Baumbach’s 1990’s films, Greenberg represents an extreme push toward warmth and compassion after the acidic vitriol infecting Margot at the Wedding or the extreme familial discomfort in The Squid and the Whale. Chalk this up to the brilliant performances by Stiller and Gerwig, both juxtaposing a tangible doubt and excitement in their many scenes together, a vibrant connection transcending the ugliness of their locale. Baumbach handles actors exquisitely, allowing them the freedom to graze in uncomfortable areas of prose and discourse, and in Greenberg his skill is on full display. Considering Baumbach’s previous forays into dark character psychology, Greenberg seems surprisingly benign, based around quiet reflections of confused people rather than bombastic outbursts of angry serpents. It’s a welcome shift in auteurism.
By the end of Greenberg, Baumbach uses our digital age to subvert romantic expectations, spinning technology as a necessary tool to communicate with our loved ones, culminating in a staggeringly beautiful scene between Roger, Florence, and a lengthy phone message. it shows that while Greenberg might be a morose grump on the outside, the seeds of change are always readily apparent, making the process of transformation far more important than the end result.