I'm not the biggest fan of Ben Stiller the comedy actor. I don't dislike his comedy, I've gotten big laughs out of it. I just grow tired of his usual nervous, high-strung character. However, when he channels that energy into something more dramatic, magic happens. That magic has a name, and it's called Greenberg.
Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a 40-year-old man who suffered a nervous breakdown, spent a little time in a psychiatric hospital, and is now purposely doing nothing with his life. When his brother takes his family to Vietnam for a vacation, Roger housesits his place in Los Angeles and takes a romantic interest in his brother's assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig). Along the way we also meet Roger's old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans).
Stiller's performance as Roger Greenberg is fantastic and possibly the best performance of his career. Every little nuance is perfect and his awkwardness is laugh out loud hilarious, though you'll feel bad when you're laughing. Usually when an actor is this in sync with his character, there's something personal involved. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke played a washed-up professional wrestler experiencing a comeback which also brought Rourke's acting career roaring back to life. In JCVD, Van Damme speaks candidly about his career while playing a fictionalized version of himself, though it was obvious there was a lot of heartfelt truth in it. With the character of Greenberg, there are no obvious similarities for Stiller to draw from. It's possible that he's just that good of an actor.
The biggest flaw of Greenberg is the character himself. He's excellently written as a bitter, jaded, misanthropic jerk. The only problem is that he's a bitter, jaded, misanthropic jerk. He's almost entirely unlikable. And since he's the focus of the entire movie, right down to his last name being the title, it makes it a bitter pill to swallow. Again, it's a testament to Stiller's acting ability that his performance can be taken so offensively.
I did say "almost' entirely unlikable. Greenberg has his moments. His relationship with Florence will be going somewhere in one scene and then they'll detest one another in the next. You'll question why she even continues to give him the time of day, but you realize that she's going through the same thing we are. Roger is an ass, but it's a defense mechanism, and on the rare occasion that he drops his guard he can really be someone special.
Greta Gerwig is an excellent actress and she's absolutely adorable. Rhys Ifans was recently seen in Pirate Radio, which is fitting, as his character Ivan could pretty much be Gavin from that film, only a little ways in the future, after cleaning up his act and starting a family. He's one of Roger's only friend, but we get the feeling that Roger values this friendship much more than Ivan does.
Greenberg is absolutely worth seeing for Stiller's performance, not to mention the laughs you'll have along the way. It's oftentimes sad, but never for too long. Roger Greenberg can be a lot to handle, but you'll learn to accept him.
What do you think of Greenberg
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