Ben Stiller plays a distinctly obnoxious protagonist in Greenberg, yet it is still a watchable film. The fact the audience will keep watching despite the questionable behaviour of the main character can definitely be attributed to Stiller’s solid performance in Greenberg.
Recovering from a breakdown, Roger Greenberg house-sits his brother’s Los Angeles home with the sole aim of doing nothing. In between writing his letters of complaint to major corporations, however, Greenberg reconnects with old friends, and makes new ones along the way…
Screenwriter and director Noah Baumbach has created an ambling little film in Greenberg. Not remotely plot-driven, the film explores the minds of the main characters; the narrative is incredibly loose. Whilst there is strength in this approach, it is also the film’s biggest weakness, as Greenberg is a thoroughly unlikable character.
His treatment of best friend Ivan and new friend/love interest Florence is, at times, deplorable. Whilst some sympathy can be garnered by the fact that Greenberg is recovering from a mental breakdown, his dramatic outbursts against these far more likable characters do little to endear him to the audience. It is these two characters in particular which generate the only positive reaction from viewers. Baumbach and writer Jennifer Jason Leigh (who also stars in the film) have, in Ivan and Florence, have created two flawed but identifiable characters, giving the audience someone to root for – an aspect completely lacking in the protagonist.
Best known for his comedic roles, Stiller excels as the unpleasant Greenberg, offering a quiet but effective performance miles away from the likes of Zoolander. Greta Gerwig shines as the downtrodden Florence; she is engaging and elicits much sympathy for putting up with Greenberg’s rants. Rhys Ifans likewise gives a solid performance, and offers the audience a moment of catharsis when he finally calls Greenberg out on his shortcomings.
Whilst Greenberg is a well-made film, with a protagonist such as this perhaps more plot development would have been a good idea. Nonetheless, the strong performances of the cast, as well as the well-crafted secondary characters, make the film an enjoyable, if sometimes frustrating, experience.