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Published: Friday, 4/30/2010

Movie review: Greenberg ***1/2

BY BARBARA VANCHERI
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is his own worst enemy.

Just when you start to have sympathy or empathy for him, Greenberg does something outrageous or selfish or thoughtless. Take the scene when he goes out to dinner on his birthday and singing waiters approach with dessert and flickering candle.

He causes a scene and insults an old friend at the table, a man who has been nothing but patient and kind. Ouch!

Greenberg is a quirky, indie mix of drama and comedy from director-writer Noah Baumbach. He is the Oscar-nominated author of the raw, uncompromising The Squid and the Whale and the painful to watch Margot at the Wedding.

This film falls between those two, closer to Squid than Margot. In fact, when someone asks Greenberg how he is, he quips he's fair to middling. "Leonard Maltin would give me 2 stars." Nice line.

Greenberg is a New Yorker who has come to house-sit at his vacationing brother's Los Angeles home after suffering a "nervous breakdown." A one-time musician turned carpenter, he promises to build a doghouse for his brother's pooch but hides behind the line, "Right now, I'm really trying to do nothing for a while."

But that nothing involves repeatedly calling his brother's personal assistant, a somewhat lost young woman named Florence (Greta Gerwig). Greenberg no longer drives, a huge problem in L.A., and he makes overtures toward Florence, retreats, and then repeats the cycle.

Mr. Stiller has become the master of humiliation comedy, but this is about a serious man who doesn't see himself the way others do. He's out of step, stuck in the past while others long ago moved on, although not without some resentments in tow.

The actor who appeared in Avatar blue face at the Academy Awards makes Greenberg somewhat endearing, as when he tries to throw a get-together and is the most uncomfortable one there or finds himself amid college-age partyers or writes one of his series of complaint letters.

Ms. Gerwig's Florence is sweetly vulnerable, lost in her mid-20s, a woman who makes bad decisions about men. Moviegoers may be split on whether they think Greenberg is good or bad for her but there's no doubt she enriches his life.

In addition to hiring Mr. Stiller to play against type, the director cast his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh (who shaped the story with him), as a long-ago friend. The always terrific Rhys Ifans portrays a one-time band mate who is now a husband and father.

At a time when many movies are just a framework for raunchy jokes, "Greenberg " is actually about someone in a real slice of L.A., where dreams may be dashed or deferred. And where, instead of being starstruck, they cadge a line from a movie and ask "Who am I? " and hope to find the answer.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barbara Vancheri is movie editor of the Post-Gazette.

Contact her at: bvancheri@post-gazette.com.



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