Movie review: Ben Stiller's 'Greenberg': When grown-ups grow up

"Greenberg" stars, from left, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Ben Stiller.
"Greenberg" stars, from left, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Ben Stiller. (Wilson Webb)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

A delicate, if slightly smoggy, feeling of regret hangs over "Greenberg," a quietly funny portrait of grown-ups growing up by Noah Baumbach. Reprising the dramatic skills he evinced in 1998's "Permanent Midnight," Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a 40-year-old Brooklyn carpenter who has come to Los Angeles to house-sit for his wealthy brother. While trying to reconnect with friends he once knew in L.A., he befriends his brother's assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), a 25-year-old who might have her life ahead of her, but for now exists in the same provisional, painfully self-conscious not-quite-there-ness as Greenberg himself.

Baumbach wrote "Greenberg" with Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays an old flame of Greenberg's and who herself grew up in L.A., which probably accounts for why every scene plays out with funny, sometimes agonizing knowingness. The film unfolds over a few weeks, during which Roger tries to build a doghouse for his brother's German shepherd, Florence has a singing gig at a local club and sundry other surprises -- welcome and not -- transpire.

The movie has the easy, unforced feel of the temporary timeout in life that Roger himself has embarked on. The script is full of funny, observant lines. At one point Florence notes to a friend that she has "been out of college for as long as I was in, and no one cares whether I get up in the morning." Later, at a kid's birthday party, Roger mordantly realizes that "men out here all dress like children and the children dress like superheroes."

For all its humor, though, "Greenberg" is much more than an accumulation of one-liners. Roger finally faces the very crisis he's so carefully lived his life to avoid, at which point viewers may be surprised how much they care about him. Stiller inhabits his character's neuroses so thoroughly that it's easy to forget what a challenge it is to make such misanthropy the least bit compelling.

Gerwig, who in such films as "Hannah Takes the Stairs" and "Baghead" earned the moniker of "Mumblecore It Girl," proves her bona fides here as a fine, engaging young actress. Whether she's singing, smiling or wondering out loud whether the driver in the other lane let her in, she seems lit from within. In many ways, those scenes, featuring just Florence in her car, listening to music, get to the heart that beats so jaggedly within "Greenberg." It's a compassionate tribute to all the people on those star-strewn avenues, driving alone with their dreams.

*** R. At area theaters. Contains some strong sexuality, drug use and profanity. 100 minutes.

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