Film Review: GREENBERG

Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh
Starring: Ben Stiller, Great Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Released April 1, 2010
Running Time 107 minutes

It is sometimes said that Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980, suffer the problems of the middle child. They are unable to hold onto the limelight as aptly as the boomers who came before him or the Generation Y kids who followed. Their smaller numbers make their collective voice difficult to hear. But in this movie, Greenberg’s voice is heard clearly, although much like chalk on a blackboard. You will probably not like the “character” Greenberg (you’re not supposed to) but you may like the movie “Greenberg” if you go in prepared to examine “unhappiness” and “narcissism.”

Baumbach has done this already in the brilliant “The Squid and the Whale” and the less brilliant, “Margot at the Wedding.” In each film very unlikeable characters make their weight felt, but don’t occupy center stage for two hours. Here the weight of Greenberg nearly flattens us. But the braveness of the writers/director in putting him on the screen for two hours is admirable.

PLOT: Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a fortyish one-time rock band member, now carpenter of dubious talent, returns to California to housesit his brother’s home and dog. He has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and spends his time writing angry letters and feeling sorry for himself. In California, he meets up with the much younger Florence, (Great Gerwig) his brother’s personal assistant, pursuing her romantically in his inept, half-hearted way. He also runs into an old friend (Rhys Ifan) suffering marital problems of his own, and his old girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The movie is spent offering Greenberg various ways to break through his wall of narcissism and self-pity. Perhaps a brick or two have fallen at the end.

It took me until the next day to begin to understand this movie. Greenberg’s whining seems incessant and self-involved in an imploding world where people suffer from real problems. His “type” is someone only French films usually look at seriously. Isn’t it time American films do too? Stiller’s is a brave performance that never begs or expects you to like him. He is surrounded by great supporting performances. Just don’t go into this film expecting to see the Ben Stiller of Zoolander. Life has ground him down.


Patti Abbott writes crime fiction short stories. She hosts a look at Forgotten Books every Friday with readers, writers and reviewers at She hopes you’ll join in.