Written by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Protagonists inherently do not need to be likable in order to tell a resonant or coherent narrative. These characters help with a point of view of the story and the person for the audience to connect to but at the very least they need to be somewhat interesting. Even with all of the attempts to try to make the protagonist in this feature engaging to follow, most of the development going on here feels far too underbaked to truly bring any level of intrigue, which does not go well with his extreme unlikeability.
Working for a family set to depart for a trip to Vietnam, Florence (Greta Gerwig) needs to ensure the house is kept up with, the dog continues to be cared for, and to help out her boss’s brother, Roger (Ben Stiller). As Roger attempts to achieve the goal of constructing a dog house for his brother’s family dog, he engages in a combustible relationship with Florence and reconnects with people from his past.
As erratic as its lead character, finding the true intentions behind Roger becomes quite the puzzle as so much information remains withheld about him. Perhaps purposeful on the part of Noah Baumbach, but maybe the ambiguity about this character does not help because more information could perhaps have allowed me to connect with him more. We know he happens to be the brother of Florence’s employer, used to be in a band, likes to write letters of complaint to companies through pen and paper, and just recently got out of a hospital stemming from a mental breakdown. What caused the mental breakdown never gets explicitly stated, but the behavior he exhibits shows he still battles with the prevailing issues of his past.
This disconnect did not allow me to fully vibe with whatever struggle Roger encountered throughout this entire film as his motivations change. He speaks like he has a purpose but then turns around on it wherever it becomes convenient. Most of the time he says things just to see how others react before coming to his senses. The very conclusion of this story displays just that but never are we allowed to fully be in connection with him where we can even begin to comprehend what he wants in life. As a result, the character becomes insufferable with nothing making him even appealing to dislike outside of his treatment of Florence.
Watching this feature displays fine performances, but the finest came from Greta Gerwig as Florence. She portrays a character just trying to do her job and gets sucked into the erratic vortex of Roger’s indecisiveness. Just getting out of a relationship, it becomes difficult to comprehend what she finds so appealing about this man who shows initial interest and then delivers harsh backlash as a result to a harmful degree. As each scene of them concluded with her being scolded, I just kept muttering to myself how she deserves so much better. She remains attached to him because of this script and by no means of reality.
Greenberg stands at quite the interesting spot in the filmography of Noah Baumbach, a director whose films I typically adore. His level of cynicism tends to be a bit much for some but it comes with a level of reality through his storytelling. This work serves as the first film in which he directly collaborated with Greta Gerwig and everything following this film got much better as Gerwig’s style helps soften the edges a bit of Baumbach’s perspectives. This particular film shows one of the lower points where the cynicism gets in the way of a fairly interesting situation he places these characters in. It almost becomes a block on the potential quality had within this story. It follows a man reckoning with his past and attempting to understand the importance of his decisions. He simply cannot breeze through life without purpose because he’s no longer a teenager or young adult. Time has come to make decisions and live with the consequences.
A strong framework but one never reaching its potential in execution, Greenberg needed a bit more to fully achieve what it wanted to through its narrative. In the effort to truly dig down on this character’s way of living, it loses sight of what remains important, a character an audience can care for either in a positive or negative sense. The way Stiller portrays this character and Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh writes him leaves plenty to be desired and just left me thinking why anyone outside of this brother continues to put up with him. It never gets revealed even in a subtle manner, which does this film no favors.