Monday, September 13, 2010
Movie Review: Greenberg
“My shrink said I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because I feel like I never really lived it in the first place.”
Such was the response by main character Roger Greenberg in the 2010 film Greenberg, when a 20-something girl matter-of-factly tells him, “you like old stuff.” The gravity of his response was lost on the girl, too young to possess the life experience necessary to fathom it.
Co-written by Gen Xers Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the movie spans six weeks in the life of Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller. He has just turned 41 years old and was recently discharged from a mental hospital after experiencing a nervous breakdown. Spending this time house-sitting for his much more successful brother, he half-heartedly attempts to connect with his brother’s 25-year-old personal assistant, Florence. Their 16-year age difference shines light on the generation gap between Gen X and Gen Y, much to the chagrin of both characters.
While this movie has been described as “Gen X Hits Middle Age,” that’s hardly an accurate summation. This is not Hot Tub Time Machine, nor is it Fast Times on Suburbia Lane (which would be an awesome sequel…). It’s one man’s question of where his life was, is, and is going. He just happens to be Generation X.
Personal relationships are the heart of the script, which often flips from past to present to cover the changes in relationships between the decades. Reconciling life imagined versus life realized is the antagonizing co-theme.
The interaction between Greenberg and his old friend and former bandmate, Ivan, made me imagine what the interaction might be like between Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye 25 years after their day off…if Ferris was now working a 9-to-5 and separated from his marriage to Sloane, and if Cameron never got past his daddy issues and really tried to drown himself in the pool. I wanted clever banter when they reminisced about the old days, but the smiles were limited and were overshadowed by regret and missed opportunity.
When Greenberg meets for a drink with former girlfriend Beth, the ambivalence of one-sided memories was exquisitely displayed by Leigh’s less-than-nostalgic character.
While she reminded me why I love her as an actor, I had hoped for something a little stronger from Leigh as a writer. I found the script to be disjointed but sporadically emphasized by a handful of profound quotes that were too good for the scenes in which they were used. I did appreciate that the pop culture references so commonplace in Gen X-oriented movies were subtly infused and not gratuitous. They were always used to illustrate a point and not simply for the sake of inclusion.
The finest scene involved Greenberg attempting to blend his current 41-year-old self with the lives of partygoers in their early 20s. His rant on what’s wrong with Gen Y was both hilarious and spot-on, and the subsequent reaction by the young’ns further demonstrated the frustrations X has with Y.
The role is a complete change from what we’re used to getting from Stiller, so it was nice to see him not Fockering things up yet again.
Roger Greenberg is not a likable person, though I found myself applauding a few of his brutally honest reactions. This is not a happy movie in any way, and you'll probably want to go to bed after you watch it. But if you're in the mood to take stock of life a little, it's worth the 2 hours. With any luck you'll actually feel better about your own life afterwards.
(Greenberg is out of theaters, but available on Netflix.)