It’s an unwritten rule that any film set in present day L.A. must at least allude to dislocation. Think Somewhere (previously reviewed) or Crash or even Swingers and they all contain elements of how vast, empty and disparate Los Angeles can be. Whether this is too obvious an allegory or whether it’s inevitable given how much time everyone writing, directing and starring in films must spend there is immaterial, it happens and that’s that.Greenberg has it in spades. Dislocation pours from it in waves, it’s awkward, embarrassing and more than a litle concerned with itself.
Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a man returning to L.A. after a mental breakdown in New York. He stays in his brother’s house and begins to reaquaint himself with friends from fiftenn years ago. He meets his brother’s family personal assistant and together they begin to form a relationship of sorts. Greta Gerwig (a star name if there ever was one) plays Florence, the personal assisitant. She’s independent film fare 101; slightly damaged, vulnerable, musically inclined, unconventionally attractive (it’s a measure of how Hollywood works that this film has to point out the few pounds Greta has on an actress Michael Bay would hire) and uncomfortable. Kind of real in other words.
Noah Baumbach is credited with the story (along with partner Jason-Leigh who has a small role here), the screenplay and the direction. He’s mined this seam before, co-writing The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic and writing and directing The Squid and the Whale. Offbeat characters in semi-real situations are his bread and butter. Greenberg is no different, skilfully written by Baumbach and convincingly portrayed by a pleasingly aged Stiller (always value in a serious role). He leaves behind Night at the Museum and Along Came Polly (harder than you’d think) to deliver a performance with a nuanced edge. His speech patterns and interactions with the other characters give a believable feel to a man recovering from a mental illness the best way he can. The cocaine moment is priceless and worth the DVD cost alone.
Performances and dialogue aside the rest of the film is somewhat untidy. Scenes drag on, presumably to heighten the aforementioned dislocation but ending up just being irritating. The music sounds like it could soundtrack any left field, quirk ridden, indie film of the last ten years and only manages to confuse a film without any real identity anyway. Greenberg plods here and races there, safe in the knowledge that no conclusions need to be reached because conclusions are not necessary in this sort of film. That, unfortunately, is pretentious and that cannot be forgiven.
It’s hard not to applaud such well rounded, well written characters, it’s just even harder to care about where they end up.