Let us get something out of the way right away. If you are a fan of Ben Stiller and his in-your-face (a la the proverbial-pie-in-the-face mode) comedy style in such films as Starsky & Hutch, Night at the Museum and Zoolander then Greenberg is just going to piss you off with its overall malaise. On the other hand, if you enjoy La Stiller in more low-key performances such as Permanent Midnight and Your Friends & Neighbors or in more auteuristic cinema such as The Royal Tanenbaums, then, buddy boy, you just hit the freakin' jackpot.
Directed by Noah Baumbach, the beloved, yet equally reviled filmmaker who brought us the mean-spirited (yet strangely tender) slices-of-life The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg is no less mean spirited (yet no less tender either) than his previous works-in-progress. I use the term works-in-progress, because I believe, much like Walt Whitman's never-ending Leaves of Grass, Baumbach's filmic oeuvre is an on-going autobiographical cleansing of the auteur's Brooklyn-born, intellectual-bred soul. Baumbach is even quoted as saying "I always viewed life as material for a movie." Of course such a conclusion can be said of many an auteur (from Godard and Truffaut to Woody Allen and Wes Anderson) and Baumbach has also said (of his The Squid and the Whale) "Somebody could easily go through and link everything to different points in not just my family, but people I know - but I don't even really care. For me, the movie is a protection - a completely reinvented film." - so perhaps such a conclusion is a moot point anyhow.
But then again, all this critical pontificating (and it is rather appropriate considering Baumbach's parents were both film critics - his mother being the famed Village Voice critic Georgia Brown) is nothing more than an avoidance tactic from actually discussing the film. Not that I did not like the film - I did. Perhaps it is not a case of like or dislike so much as enjoy and not enjoy. An awkward, despicable little film in many ways, Greenberg is full of unlikable character after unlikable character after unlikable character (only one character in the movie is even someone you would want to associate with on a regular basis) and though it is a well-crafted, oft-beguiling little film, full of a richness of texture, it is also a depressing, angry film with very little character growth and very little, if any, storyline denouement. Not that any of these complaints are of any concern to this critic - I kinda like my movies like that - but one could feasibly argue the other way. Of course, after seeing Baumbach's earlier works(-in-progress) for what they really are - a catharsis of an analytical soul - one must assume that the awkwardness of the story and of the characters (as well as the viewers awkwardness at watching) is fully on purpose - and fully on-the-nose. This being the case, one can surely like Greenberg (the movie not the character) while at the same time not enjoying Greenberg (the character or the movie).
Of course this awkwardness and sense of pervading melancholy (as well as the aforementioned lack of structured denouement) is probably too much - or too little - for what we would call the average moviegoer, but it surely is too little for those expecting the Ben Stiller of the multiplex. Not quite as dark as say, The Cable Guy, but not near as boisterous as those multiplex multitudes would want, need or expect. Not that this frantic side of Stiller is a total waste (I have enjoyed the actor in many of his lower-brow gut-punches susch as Dodgeball and Zoolander) but Baumbach has helped bring the crazed actor of Tropic Thunder down to Earth a bit and given him a role that may not be very likable but is certainly something he can sink his starving thespianic chops into. It is this very emotionality (for better or for worse) that Baumbach aims for in all his films. It is his own form of rebellion as a filmmaker growing up the way he did. To prove my point, and to quote the auteur (or perhaps anti-auteur is more apropos) one final time and close this baby out - "I grew up in the heat of 70s postmodern fiction and post-Godard films, and there was this idea that what mattered was the theory or meta in art. My film is emotional rather than meta, and that's my rebellion." [05/03/10]