Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mark Duplass, Chris Messina, Susan Traylor, Merritt Wever
Written by: Noah Baumbach, based on a story by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Noah Baumbach
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
MPAA Rating: R for some strong sexuality, drug use, and language
Running Time: 107
Date: 02/14/2010

Greenberg (2010)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pool Smarty

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Noah Baumbach's Greenberg is a halfway experience. It's halfway between the highs of Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (2005) and the lows of his Margot at the Wedding (2007). It's halfway between the carefully polished dialogue of Baumbach's collaborations with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox) and the intelligent, organic ramble of the "mumblecore" movies it takes as its inspiration. Yet it has a few quiet, subtle, satisfying moments that sneak up on you from around and between the dialogue, and they make the movie worth pondering.

Ben Stiller stars as the title character, Roger Greenberg, who is fresh out of a mental hospital. He winds up in Los Angeles, housesitting and dogsitting for his brother, who has taken his family on a vacation to Vietnam. Roger is 41 and has decided to "do nothing for a while," aside from some carpentry and writing complaining letters to irresponsible corporations. He begins looking up some of his old friends, including Ivan (Rhys Ifans), with whom he was once in a band and was once inches away from a record deal.

He also meets his brother's personal assistant 25 year-old Florence ("mumblecore" veteran Greta Gerwig), who is a bit nutty, perhaps a bit insecure, but definitely competent. They begin a strange, push-and-pull relationship. Roger is attracted to her, but probably feels he doesn't deserve her, or is too old for her. He tries to focus his attentions on a newly divorced ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), which goes badly. And so Roger and Florence get together, try to make love and wind up fighting; they're drawn together out of fate when the family dog, Mahler, gets sick.

The actors really step up for these complex characters, which are often irritating and distant, and even if the writing is not always there for them. Baumbach unwisely tries to use some of the same 180-degree dialogue (characters respond to each comment with something completely different) that works so beautifully in the Wes Anderson movies, but here comes across as false.

Happily, Baumbach cooks up some lovely visuals and small moments that are worth a thousand words, such as a shot of a lonely Roger, surrounded at a party but totally alienated, or thrashing and flailing across the length of a swimming pool. Likewise, Ifans in particular seems to know best how to maneuver this material, carrying his character's baggage with more dignity than any of the others. As a result, relationship with Roger builds and pays off in a satisfying and heartbreaking way. Indeed, the film seems to grow more confident as it goes along, and it comes up with a truly lovely last line that goes a long way toward justifying and nailing down the Roger character.

Another "mumblecore" icon, Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Humpday), co-stars.

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