Movie Reviews

'Greenberg' and 'Hot Tub Time Machine' look at breakups of male friendships

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

If the past few years in cinema have celebrated the joys of bromance, it's only fitting that the next logical step would be the male breakup movie.

In "Greenberg," Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a spiky, slightly addled misanthrope grappling with midlife as he returns to Los Angeles, where he once lived, to housesit for his brother. ("I'm doing nothing, deliberately," he keeps repeating.) One-line descriptions of the film portray it as a mismatched romance between Greenberg and his brother's assistant Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), a coltish, unformed young woman who, like Roger, lives in a state of agonizingly self-conscious limbo.

But as funny and arresting as "Greenberg" is as it traces the unlikely alliance of two souls adrift in the detritus of L.A.'s broken dreams, its most melancholy core lies in the frayed ends of Roger's friendship with Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a British expatriate who brings years of buried regret, rivalry and rage to the simmering surface.

"Greenberg," which was directed by Noah Baumbach from a script he wrote with Jennifer Jason Leigh, in many ways hews to the director's signature rueful tone, perfected in such films as "Kicking and Screaming" and "The Squid and the Whale." In following Roger's stay at his brother's Hollywood Hills home, the film pungently captures the multiple personalities of a city in which glamour and privilege bump elbows with strip malls and scruffy clubs. And in a series of quiet, sharply observed scenes, Baumbach effortlessly conveys the twinned hopes and fears of a 25-year-old girl on the cusp of her still-provisional life and a 40-year-old man who is being forced, as Ivan says at one point, to "finally embrace the life you never planned on."

Roger, though, isn't quite ready for that acceptance and, as "Greenberg" chronicles his prickly encounters with ex-friends and would-be lovers, the movie becomes as much an index of unfinished business as new beginnings. The most potent exchanges are between Roger and Ivan as they come to terms with an episode that once threatened their friendship, which each has come to understand in wildly different (and self-serving) ways over the last 15 years.

For most of the movie, Roger and Ivan tiptoe around the conflict, softening its most painfully sharp contours with old inside jokes and elliptical silences. But when they finally have it out, in a party scene that Baumbach stages with the edgy expertise of a coked-up Blake Edwards, the high-stakes truth of their unspoken argument comes bitterly to light.

The moment arrives as a sobering punctuation mark to a recent chapter in American cinema devoted to the rites and manners of male friendship, from such fine-grained character studies as "Old Joy" and "Humpday" to the best-buds-4-ever comedies of Judd Apatow, in which otherwise overwhelming emotional currents are tamed by ritualized physical stunts and neurotic obsession with homosexuality.

Tonally, "Greenberg" shares qualities of Apatow's most challenging and emotionally honest film, last year's strange and sublime "Funny People." But the raunchy slapstick that has made Apatow a new brand also has its analog in the uproariously funny "Hot Tub Time Machine."

John Cusack, Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson play estranged friends who reunite for a ski trip, only to be sent back to their heyday in the 1980s by way of a whacked-out Jacuzzi. Clearly making a bid to be this year's "Hangover," "Hot Tub Time Machine" dutifully obeys the conventions of its genre, delivering vulgar one-liners, projectile excretions and painful stunts involving male nether regions with metronomic regularity.

As formulaic as it all sounds, "Hot Tub Time Machine" works, largely thanks to the assured performances of its three leads (as well as young Clark Duke, who plays a nephew along for the ride) and crisp direction by Steve Pink, whose résumé includes producing duties in "High Fidelity" and a role in "Grosse Pointe Blank."

"Hot Tub Time Machine's" audience is surely meant to take most of their pleasure in the film's most lunk-headed, escapist revelry, the most extreme of which comes at the hands of a pathologically manic character named Lou, played by Corddry with the same dark glint of Jim Carrey at his most unnerving. Like "Greenberg," its plot hinges on the romantic goal of female acceptance. But the greater narrative engine is driven by the men's search for male loyalty and, as in "Greenberg," that search transpires in an atmosphere steeped in nostalgia. (Granted, in "Hot Tub Time Machine" that nostalgia takes the literal form of leg warmers, Poison records and mobile phones the size of bread loaves.)

In "Hot Tub Time Machine," the three middle-age protagonists have grown apart, with Cusack's character recently dumped for being narcissistic and self-absorbed. On their trip back in time, they're confronted with a chance to revisit a pivotal event that, ultimately, magically restores the bond that had been torn asunder.

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