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Narcissism Rears Its Ugly Head in Greenberg

  • Christa Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2010 3 Mar
  • COMMENTS
Narcissism Rears Its Ugly Head in <i>Greenberg</i>


Release Date:
 March 26, 2010 (limited)
Rating:  R (for some strong sexuality, drug use and language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  107 min.
Director:  Noah Baumbach
Actors:  Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Chris Messina, Jennifer Jason-Leigh Susan Traylor, Rhys Ifans, Mina Badie, Zach Chassler, Koby Rouviere, Sydney Rouviere, Aaron Wrinkle, Mark Duplass

With the exception of last year's delightfully quirky Fantastic Mr. Fox where the squabbles between father and son were decidedly less volatile, writer/director Noah Baumbach is known for penning screenplays with particularly prickly family dynamics (see Margot at the Wedding, The Squid and the Whale, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou).

And while Baumbach doesn't focus much on the family minutia this time around, the whole relationship angle is certainly no less complicated in Greenberg, an unsettling story about people (middle-aged and otherwise) embracing the life they never planned on.

Serving as the title's namesake, 41-year-old Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is a failed rock star-turned-carpenter who's decided that his next career movie is doing, well, nothing. Before beginning the journey of nothingness, however, life takes yet another unexpected detour from Manhattan to Los Angeles.

After a brief stint in a mental institution following a nervous breakdown, Roger makes the cross-country trek to dog-sit for his brother Phillip's (Chris Messina) German shepherd while his family is on an extended vacation in Vietnam.

In stark contrast to Roger's rather grim reality, Phillip leads a pretty charmed life. Instead of being reclusive, awkward and full of antagonism like Roger, who spends a good chunk of his time composing angry letters to behemoth corporations he believes have done him wrong, Phillip has a successful career, a gorgeous home and a pretty assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), to deal with life's more mundane tasks like running errands, grocery shopping and giving the dog his medicine.

Much like Roger's ho-hum existence, Florence's life is definitely sad, too. While she's got a modicum of musical talent and plenty of unassuming, girlish charm, she freely gives her body to truly unappreciative, unworthy suitors, yet barely musters the chutzpah to ask for her own paycheck. So as you've probably guessed, Roger is drawn to Florence like a moth to a flame. After all, it's a prime opportunity just when he needs one the most.

Unlike your requisite romantic comedy where it's at least quasi-entertaining to watch even the unlikeliest of pairs find love, though, seeing Roger and Florence's courtship play out is downright painful—and that's putting it mildly. Not only is it impossible to root for this codependent couple, but given the sheer selfishness of Roger's actions and the cruelty of his words whenever they get close, it ultimately makes you mad at Florence, too, because she doesn't have enough self-respect to give him the heave-ho for good.

Sandwiched in between Roger and Florence's on-again-off-again relationship are other displays of Roger's blatant narcissism. The best example is the artfully choreographed scene at the garden party he hosts. During a particularly telling voiceover, we witness how Roger sees nothing but what happens to him, even though his former bandmate and close friend Ivan (Notting Hill's Rhys Ifans, who shines in a serious role) is on the verge of losing of his marriage.

While Ivan pours out his heart, all Roger can think about is how his old friend Eric (Mark Duplass) may have insulted him or that his ex-girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Baumbach's wife and story collaborator) is now single again and presumably ready to mingle. Funnily enough, once Roger eventually senses that his friends keep him at arm's length, he even lacks the self-awareness to understand why—something Ivan is forced to explain to him later.

To Stiller's credit, he actually does a fantastic job of branching out from his typical funny guy shtick and playing a guy this grossly unlovable. And Gerwig, who's already an indie movie favorite, also shines as a lonely girl struggling in a city cluttered with superficiality.

Good acting aside, this is by no means an endorsement. For a flick that tries so hard to make a grand statement about the messiness of humanity and how "hurt people hurt people," there's something incredibly contrived and hollow about Greenberg.

After all, without spending your hard-earned cash and nearly two hours in a theater, most people can see the horrible effects of narcissism played out in everyday life. And my guess is those ordinary truths would be even stranger (and more relevant) than Baumbach's fiction.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Social drinking and a lengthy scene where Greenberg snorts cocaine at a party.

  • Language/Profanity:  Several uses of the "f" word, plus a steady stream of other profanities, including misuses of God's name.

  • Sex/Nudity:  Loneliness and sex go hand in hand in the movie. Before meeting Greenberg, Florence sleeps with a random guy who makes it clear that it's just sex, not a relationship (her breasts are revealed as she puts her bra on afterward). The first time Florence actually meets Greenberg, he almost immediately makes a pass at her and only minutes later, is performing oral sex on her (this scene is particularly graphic). Later on, another gritty sex scene between the new couple (there's more female upper-body nudity shown) definitely isn't prettified by Hollywood standards either.

  • Violence:  An animal's head is floating in a swimming pool.

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.