What is happening in Greenberg? One thing is Noah Baumbauch’s near-perfect screenplay and direction. This is a real LA film, and for whatever reason, Baumbach has chosen LA to be the setting for a particular portrait of sadness. Because that’s what this film is. It’s sadness…all of ours, represented in the title character far less than it is in its Lavinia of tortured lead female characters, Florence, who is kicked and poked and emotionally thrown just enough to make the viewer think, wow, Baum speaks the truth.

There are a few women who are irreconcilably offended by the way Florence is treated in this film. And rightly so, indeed. Yes. This viewer felt pain, but it was largely a lot of her own ability to recognize the impulses and actions that probably make Florence a bit of a push over, and a dummy, in the film. You are forgiven and further empathized with, because I am guilty of the same.

Florence is the personal assistant to the kind of beautiful, liberal couple that lives in LA, which is very similar to the same couple that lives in New York, only the former have a pool that they let their weirdo neighbors use. She is babysitter to their kids, buyer of groceries, and walker of their lovable German Shepard and comfy Hollywood home. They take their kids on a family vacation to Vietnam, where they’re “opening a hotel or something,” and leave their heavily psycho-medicated brother, visiting from New York for a while after an off-camera break-down, alone with his thoughts, the liquor cabinet, and a notepad on which to write letters of complaint to various corporations and national newspapers.  (“Can a pool flood? What the hell kind of question is that?” his brother shouts over the phone from Vietnam).

Another thing that is happening is Ben Stiller, who, as the brother, Roger Greenberg, is giving us a performance that is unhinged and damaged and ultimately real: he gives us the comedy he was once capable of before a long, strange hiatus into…other things. Stiller has comedic posts in the deadpan, in the wacky, in that of the bemused straight man, and now in the form of a Baumbach lead. Bequeathed with a critical literacy that lets him analyze 20-year olds at his niece’s party (“Oh yeah, I heard the kids are doing coke again,” he says with mock amusement), by saying he read in an article that they are all incapable of expressing emotions. He reverses this comment in another, more serious scene when he admits to Florence that he thinks “young people are so brave.”

Greenberg is also available to transgress social and emotional boundaries with Florence, and then feign damage and unavailability when she, oddly, responds. His poor treatment of an old friend and bandmate who he reunites with in LA is troubling, since he is a fumbling, idiotic, selfish mess most of the time. But his relationship with Florence  is made to be the focal point for us to choose to hate him or forgive him. It seems like this is a very important choice, and Baumbach may be too hasty to make the call for us at the end. That doesn’t change the fact that everything that Baumbauch is trying to tell us with his film, in the focused details of misbehavior, is entirely, unforgivingly true.

-Heather Struck

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