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Friday, March 26,2010

Putting the punch in punchline

The humor of "Greenberg" is acidic — and unexpectedly touching, too

by James Sanford

gb.jpg“Are you going to let me in?”


That’s
what Florence (Greta Gerwig) murmurs as she navigates the traffic on a busy Los
Angeles street. She might ask the same question of the title character in
“Greenberg,” writer-director Noah Baumbach’s acidic comedy, in which Ben
Stiller plays a stubborn slacker who spends his days fashioning personal
crusades out of minor inconveniences and wallowing in nostalgia, although it’s
hard to imagine his supposed glory days were anymore glorious than his
seemingly pointless present-day situation.


Greenberg
— first name Roger — makes a habit of keeping the world and everyone in it at
arm’s length, although he’s not too proud to accept an invitation from his
well-heeled brother, Phillip (Chris Messina), to stay at Phillip’s Los Angeles
mansion while Phillip and his family vacation in Vietnam. “He’s delicate,”
Phillip says of Roger, a rather kind way to describe someone whose grocery list
begins with whiskey and ice cream sandwiches and doesn’t go much further.


“Leonard
Maltin would give me, like, two and a half stars,” Roger tells his former
girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the screenplay with
Baumbach).


Florence is Phillip’s personal
assistant, a woman who understands every aspect of neediness. At a party, she
reaches out to a potential partner by telling him, “I’ve been out of college as
long as I’ve been in, and nobody cares if I get up in the morning.” Now there’s
a pick-up line you don’t hear every day.


Ever
since his debut film “Kicking and Screaming” 15 years ago, Baumbach has
specialized in telling stories about privileged, jaded, often intellectual
characters who can’t seem to get their acts together. In “The Squid and the
Whale,” writers Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are both brilliant when it comes to
putting words down on paper and utterly clueless when it’s time to talk to
their kids, or to each other. Nicole Kidman’s character in “Margot at the
Wedding” is a narcissistic, never-satisfied author whose only joy comes from
making everyone around her miserable.


These are not particularly easy
characters to warm up to, and neither is Roger, who initially seizes upon
Florence’s low self-esteem and uses it as a weapon against her. When Florence
finds herself in the midst of a major crisis and must call on Roger for help,
he responds in shocking, mocking ways. He doesn’t treat his friend and former
bandmate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), much better.


“I’m not one of those preening L.A.
people who wants everything to be all about them,” Roger tells Florence, a
statement that’s only half-true: Roger comes from the East Coast.


Stiller is terrific here, investing
himself in a character in a way he hasn’t done since his enormously underrated
work in “Permanent Midnight” and “Your Friends and Neighbors” more than a
decade ago. But the true revelation of “Greenberg” is Gerwig, who pulls off the
astonishing trick of making Florence endearing and touching instead of purely
pathetic. While Roger may treat her as a punching bag, Gerwig gives Florence a
backbone of solid steel; it may be buried, but it’s definitely there. That core
of strength and resilience turns a victim into a victor, and makes Florence
fascinating.


In a time when many comedies pander
to their audiences by offering up comforting clichés and lowbrow jokes, “Greenberg”
boldly goes in exactly the opposite direction. Baumbach and Jason Leigh know
how to put the punch in punchlines, and many of the film’s funniest moments are
also the most disturbing.


While they take a certain delight
in exposing Roger’s pettiness — he writes a complaint letter to American
Airlines not about delays or poor service, but about the low quality of the
buttons on the recliner seats — and Florence’s all-consuming desire to be
accepted, the writers also dare us to look beyond Roger and Florence’s flaws to
see what lies beneath. Roger habitually coats his lips with cherry ChapStik;
Florence frequently picks at or pinches her lips.


Obviously, they must be made for
each other, right?


 "Greenberg" showtimes

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