Everyone’s run into someone like Roger Greenberg, or has even been like him at some point. At the age of forty, Greenberg is so full of regrets that he’s become unbearably mean, cynical and selfish. While his friends concentrate on their families and careers, Greenberg still dwells on a potential record deal he botched in 1995.
He is haunted by the passage of his wasted youth. When his friend gets the waiters at a restaurant to sing him happy birthday, he storms out, screaming obscenities. He finds it disturbing that people don’t remember Duran Duran or Wall Street anymore. In one scene I particularly like, he rants to a group of twenty-year-olds about how the Twitter generation doesn’t share Generation X’s values, while doing coke with them.
Greenberg’s the kind of guy you hate and feel sorry for at the same time. You’d like to help him out, but the act of talking to him is excruciating, as he resorts to insults as a means of self-defense. His defensive posture makes him incapable of change.
It’s rare to see a movie starring someone so unpleasant who isn’t a famous megalomaniac like Hitler. Greenberg is a guy we would push to the margins of our lives if we knew him, and we have the same instinct when we watch him in a movie. He occupies a dark corner of the human condition that we’d rather not think about, perhaps because of a human instinct to steer clear of failure, or because it reminds us of the unpleasant aspects of ourselves.
But as far as I can tell, unpleasant personalities are somewhat common, and they deserve a place on movie screens. There are more interesting struggles going on behind scowls like Greenberg’s than Hollywood smiles. However disagreeable he is, Greenberg is a fascinating character.
L.A. provides the background for Greenberg’s struggles. He has just moved there after living in New York for years, and he is horribly unsuited to the city: he can’t swim, and he doesn’t drive. We get an interesting, and not very flattering, view of L.A. as he walks around on sidewalks that aren’t meant to be used, pressing unresponsive crosswalk buttons.
Greenberg starts a romance with his brother’s personal assistant, played by Greta Gerwig, who is nearly his exact opposite. Having just graduated from college, she hasn’t collected many regrets. She is as sweet as Greenberg is abrasive, performing humdrum tasks for her employer and even taking insults with a breezy resignation. Greta Gerwig plays her very naturally – A.O. Scott of the New York Times predicts that she will inspire an new method of acting. She provides some well-needed sanity and likeability to counter Greenberg’s presence.
This is also a groundbreaking performance for Stiller, who has always played awkward people but never someone who shatters the mood of social situations like Greenberg.
I’m disappointed that Greenberg hasn’t made much of a splash: it received a 70% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which puts it in the good-but-not-great category, and everyone I’ve mentioned it to either hasn’t heard about it or knows it as “the Ben Stiller movie, right?” It’s worth seeing for Greta Gerwig’s performance, Ben Stiller’s performance, and the insightful character of Greenberg. Many of the scenes made such an impression on me, were in my thoughts so much in the weeks after I saw it, that I felt obliged to see it again.