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Off His Chest
Noah Baumbach Makes Room for the Loony
By Cole Smithey
The post-traumatic stress and economic desolation of 21st century America is filtered through the midlife crisis of Ben Stiller's troubled title character in Noah Baumbach's edgy romantic comedy, a cinematic argument that puts a premium on how we treat one another. There are plenty of laughs to be had — both easy and queasy — as Roger attempts to re-acclimate back to society after a stint in a New York mental hospital.
Dedicated to nothing more than his the openly-disclosed purpose of "doing nothing," the medicated Roger Greenberg house-sits at his brother Phillip's (Chris Messina) comfortable Los Angeles home while he and his wife are vacationing in Vietnam — just because. Troubled by anxiety and afflicted with OCD, Roger slips into a romantic liaison with Phillip’s personal assistant Florence (uninhibitedly played by impressive newcomer Greta Gerwig, previously seen in "The House of the Devil").
Their awkward relationship serves as a sounding board for Roger's fears and seesawing emotional states. It also enables Florence, a force of nature whose self-deprecating needs set up a post-collapse thematic mantra she learned from her singing coach; "hurt people, hurt people."
"Greenberg" is about people in so much pain that they can't help but lash out deploying uncontrolled defense mechanisms which belie personal truths they can barely articulate. With “Greenberg” Baumbach and wife/co-story writer Jennifer Jason Leigh have tapped into America's chasm of disbelief. "Greenberg" fearlessly stares into a social abyss that threatens to swallow up a country forced into doing nothing.
Mentally unstable characters are a staple for Noah Baumbach, whose films ("Margot at the Wedding" and "The Squid and the Whale") take an empathetic and humorous approach toward abnormal social behavior. That the filmmaker does so with respectful regard, excludes a tendency toward exploitation — although some might disagree.
The elephant in the Greenberg room involves Roger's clumsy seduction of Florence shortly after the two have shared a beer from the same bottle during their first date — in the comfort of her humble living room. In a blink, there's a kiss and Roger disrobes Florence from her snug sports bra and pants to bury his face in her nether regions while she lackadaisically stares up at the ceiling making an abstract comment about trains. The spontaneous scene of acted-on attraction hits you fast, and opens up the film to an impulsive commentary on post-modern relationships. There's danger here. It also identifies the characters as sexual beings who do more than talk. Just as quickly as it began, the love-making falls apart. Neither Florence or Roger have the patience to continue.
Greenberg spends his time building a house for his brother's sickly dog Mahler, when he isn't writing carefully composed complaint letters to companies like American Airlines about a seat that wouldn't recline. He's an impotent critic of society. Coming from a guy who carries the burden of having been responsible for ruining his college rock band's shot at the big time fifteen years earlier — a defining event in his arrested development — we understand Greenberg's nagging need to set things right. On his short list is rekindling a friendship with his ex-girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and former band mate Ivan Schrank (Rhys Ifans). Both Beth and Ivan are married with families. They've moved on with their lives. It's a progression that Greenberg--the aging man-boy--can only approach from his myopic viewpoint. The voices in his head shout so loudly that he isn't able to hear what the people near him are saying about their relation to him.
"Greenberg" is a meta film that makes its points within the context of a society where everyone is "middle-class" and tragically ignores the desperation that seethes beneath the layers of their I-Phone-Facebook-interaction. Roger Greenberg is a tragic character barely able to maintain any kind of relationship. The degree to which an audience sympathizes or empathizes with him is a self-reflexive proposition. You might watch his behavior and think to yourself that you shouldn't yell at people you care about. You could also watch the film and be inspired to write a 3000-word letter to your boss about how unfair you're treated at work. Sure it'll get you fired, but you'll have something off your chest.
(Focus Features) Rated R. 107 mins.
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