“Greenberg” works mostly as a study of the title character Roger Greenberg, portrayed by the likeable Ben Stiller. His role in this film marks a huge turn for Stiller, as Greenberg is a deviant pessimist with a serious anti-social condition as well as possible OCD. As a matter of fact, he is regularly seen writing angry complaint letters to every business in which he finds any minor discrepancy. As bitter as he outwardly appears to be, the film delves deeper and unearths somewhat of a reason for his cynical behavior. The only problem I had was that it did not go quite deep enough.
Traveling from New York City to Los Angeles, Roger takes a sojourn at his brother Phillip’s (Chris Messina) opulent abode while he and his family go out on vacation. Greenberg recently was released from a mental institution in NYC after he had a critical nervous breakdown and now he wishes to let go of his problems temporarily while he sorts out his life. Unfortunately for him, he cannot seem to get any relief even when he is trying. The family’s normal housesitter Florence (Greta Gerwig) and he develop a complicated and awkward romantic relationship. This concept never really takes off for either of them in the way that it should and is only further complicated by Greenberg’s misanthropic tendencies.
While returning to L.A., he also reconnects with a former friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans). The two used to be in a local band together a few years back, but separated once Greenberg blew their one chance at real success. The two hit it off better than one might expect, but there is always the lingering reminder to Greenberg of the fellow band members’ dreams he shattered. On top of this pressure, the family dog is experiencing some odd diseases and requires medical attention semi-regularly. So much for the getaway Greenberg was hoping for.
Instead of being executed in a slapstick, sitcom-style manner like I am making this out to be, the film is actually very subtle. Almost like a restrained and less oddball version of Wes Anderson (director Noah Baumback is actually credited with writing “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). It is also significantly darker than Wes Anderson’s work. Greenberg’s antipathetic commentary toward the modern world certainly carries over to the tone of the film, which offsets depression with a smart yet pensive variety of humor.
There are a few genuine moments where Greenberg really shows depth and humanity beyond just his exterior hatefulness. You can understand where he is coming from even if you are not supportive of his methods of showing it. But where “Greenberg” lost me was that it did not have more moments such as these. The experience for me was slightly underwhelming. I did not know as much about the title character as I wanted to know. It is too bad that with sharp material like this, we could not have gotten a greater glimpse and a wider insight on the title character.
I almost hate to not give it a recommendation because I did like most of the film. I just think it could have used just a little bit extra to make it that much more sincere.