I went to see Greenberg (2010) with high expectations, hoping to experience some of the same quirky-comedy-meets-dysfunctional-family-drama that Noah Bambauch had so skillfully crafted in his two previous films, The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Margot at the Wedding (2007). While it falls into this same genre, Greenberg seems to embody the extremes of both dysfunction and comedy. Hilarious one-liners speckle this painfully awkward coming-of-age-as-an-adult film. The only problem is that it’s a little too awkward. Unfortunately, I left the theatre disappointed by director Noah Baumbauch and co-story creator Jennifer Jason Leigh. Fortunately, you might be someone who disagrees.
Our protagonist, played by Ben Stiller, is still trying to find himself at age 41. He unfortunately never found his life purpose to be able to claim the status of mid-life crisis. After having refused a record deal on anti-corporate principles, his life—in the conventional sense—never seemed to take shape. This is not necessarily because he never found the right “career.” What makes this film so depressing is our protagonist’s lack of connection and compassion with the people around him—his family, friends, and lovers. Greenberg seems to have “found” his identity as a carpenter in Brooklyn, but yet our character’s tragic flaw is his unwillingness to reach-out to the people in his life. In turn, Greenberg has been unable to form those social connections necessary in making us “found.” Throughout the film, I kept trying to care about him, but to no avail. By the end, we see a glimmer of compassion, but it’s not enough to convince me of his personal growth. Instead, I found myself rooting for his friends, happily awaiting the moment when they would realize they didn’t need his friendship.
A.O. Scott from The New York Times has a different take on the ending. He writes in his review, “And suddenly a movie about a man who is defiantly difficult to like becomes very hard not to love.” While I’m glad that someone appreciated his quirks, I still cannot disagree more. What is the purpose of exposing dysfunction that does not illuminate something positive and hopeful about human nature? What is so fascinating about a protagonist that does not offer significant life lessons? What I love about film is that it often shows the process through which we cope with our environment. Somehow, we relate and learn. The problem is that we never really see Greenberg fix his tragic flaw. I’m not asking for a happy ending all the time. I just would prefer to empathize enough with my protagonist to be able to maintain interest in the film.
That said, Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh have made a valiant effort. Greenberg does not quite give the same level of satisfaction as Baumbach’s previous two films, The Squid and the Whale or Margot at the Wedding. Yet, the film will certainly offer many funny and touching moments. If you appreciate the rest of the Baumbach canon, you might just have to see it and decide for yourself.