[Screen It]

(2010) (Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig) (R)

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Dramedy: Having been released from a mental hospital, an unhappy man returns to his old stomping grounds to house-sit for his brother where he ends up getting involved with his sibling's personal assistant while trying to relive his youth through his ex-girlfriend and former band mate.
Decades ago, Roger Greenberg (BEN STILLER) was a member of a band that was on the verge of hitting it big. But his know-it-all attitude and distrust of others eventually ruined their shot and everyone moved on with their lives, except for Roger. Having just been released from a mental hospital in New York, he's returned to his old stomping grounds of Los Angeles to house-sit for his brother who's off to vacation with his family in Vietnam.

Now a carpenter by trade, Roger doesn't plan on doing anything more in the upcoming six weeks than build a doghouse for the family pet. But he finds himself attracted to his brother's much younger personal assistant, Florence Marr (GRETA GERWIG), who stops by to check on things and help out Roger however she can. The two end up having a sexual encounter -- not long after she's done the same with another total stranger while out partying with her best friend, Gina (MERRIT WEVER) -- but Roger can't decide how he feels about her.

Of course, it doesn't help that he wants to relive his glory days and thus makes contact with his ex-girlfriend from way back when, Beth (JENNIFER JASON LEIGH) -- who's since married, had kids and is now going through a divorce -- as well as former band mate Ivan Schrank (RHYS IFANS) who's similarly facing marriage issues of his own. Considering that they've moved on with their lives and grown up while he's remained in something of an identity crisis limbo, Roger ends up clashing with reality. As the weeks wear on, he ends up pushing his relationships with them as well as Florence to the brink as he tries to figure out what to do with himself and his life.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
One of the key things that make civilizations, well, civilized, is the ability to treat others in a friendly and compassionate way. In fact, that's probably one of the most important things needed to transform from a self-centered child into a caring and decent adult. Granted, there are psychopaths, sociopaths and just plain mean, rude and obnoxious people that either didn't learn such social skills or decided to abandon or simply not adopt them.

Fortunately, we don't run into the first two groups that often (at least in the clinical sense), but encounters with the latter -- be they narcissists, misanthropes or what have you -- are sadly more often becoming everyday occurrences. You know, the types who don't care how they affect others and thus often abuse them in one way or another, with those recipients and witnesses often doing or saying nothing since they're trying to be polite and behave the way they were taught.

Accordingly, such abusive folks aren't that much fun to be around in person, and thus most regular folk don't have any great hankering to hang out with them at the movies. By that, I'm not referring to being seated near them in a theater (although that also applies), but rather to watch them on the screen, big or small, for anything more than a few moments.

Yet, that's what we're asked to do for 100 or so minutes with the title character in "Greenberg," the latest dramedy from filmmaker Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale," "Margot at the Wedding") who obviously seems to have a thing for focusing on damaged souls and their equally damaged relationships with others.

Rather than following in the footsteps of the likes of Woody Allen and Larry David in casting themselves as such characters, Baumbach -- who co-wrote this latest offering with wife Jennifer Jason Leigh who has a small part in the film -- casts others to do the dirty work. This time around, it's the seemingly unlikely choice of Ben Stiller to fill those shoes.

While the famous actor has occasionally dabbled in serious fare (such as "Permanent Midnight" and "Your Friends & Neighbors"), most audiences think of him appearing in goofy comedies, and usually ones where he's the put-upon and thus frustrated protagonist. Here, Stiller plumbs that to greater (or would that be lower) depths -- and jettisons the goofiness, mugging and such that have become his trademark -- playing a carpenter whose goal is to do nothing beyond house sitting for his sibling while that brother and his family vacation abroad.

A once aspiring rock 'n roller before his pettiness and distrust in others ruined his band's potential, he returns to his old stomping grounds (Los Angeles) following a stint in a New York mental hospital. He doesn't like the neighbors who come over to use the pool, ends up breaking the heart of his brother's personal assistant (a terrific Greta Gerwig in what could be her breakout role) who has her own issues (most notably a taste for casual sex), and tries to rekindle and return to his "glory days" with his ex-girlfriend (Leigh) and former band mate (Rhys Ifans).

Along the way, he must also deal with his relatives' sick dog, a party at the house filled with young people he thinks are too perfect due to having touchy-feely parents, and routinely pens (the old fashioned way) petty letters of complaint to any number of companies and corporations he believes have wronged him in some way.

That might sound as if it's loaded with potential for great bits of comedy mixed in with more insightful looks into the human psyche and relationships. There are some of both present, but the humor is extra dry, not plentiful enough and not always as funny as presumably intended. The psychoanalysis elements are more open to interpretation, with some viewers likely to find great stuff here, while others will probably view the portrayals and themes ("Hurt people hurt people") as self-important, cursory bits of psycho-babble.

The bigger issues, at least for yours truly, are two-fold. For starters, and despite the storyline element descriptions listed above, there really isn't a great deal of plot, and certainly not much of one in the usual, linear A to Z fashion. No, it doesn't jump around through time. Instead, it just sort of meanders here and there, with the behavior and actions not always making sense. While that might play well to certain art house aficionados, it often left me cold toward and/or bored about what was transpiring.

Then there's the fact that one must spend those 100-some minutes watching a man-child abuse others and thus in the process, himself. I understand it's all designed to take the viewer out of their comfort zone, but at least Allen and David infuse enough humor into their similar characters and situations to make them and such stories more bearable (and sometimes downright entertaining). The end result here is like watching someone mistreat others and not do anything about it, just like those characters.

That said, Stiller is certainly fine in the role for what it is, and Ifans is good as well, also downplaying his usual amped up characteristics. But it's Gerwig who's the real find (yes, she's been in other films, but few have seen them), effortlessly slipping into her character and imbuing her with an offhand magnetism that means you simply can't take your eyes off her. In fact, she comes off just as Stiller's character describes her, as someone who's pretty but not drop-dead gorgeous in a low-key fashion. Hopefully, her work here will get here more noticed and lead to bigger and better things.

It's highly unlikely, however, that this will play outside the art house circuit, and even inside that it's likely to draw mixed reviews. While it's ended up as one of those films I didn't initially like as a whole but has grown on me a bit in hindsight (something about it or certain elements have festered in my psyche since seeing it), it still comes in below average due to a meandering plot and not enough humor to temper an unsavory protagonist. "Greenberg" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 12, 2010 / Posted March 26, 2010

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