Written and directed by: Noah Baumbach
There’s something about a title that doesn’t tell you anything that tells you just enough. Part of me finds it odd when a story is named after a character. That character usually doesn’t exist outside of their own narrative realm, so how can a title possible say anything about their story? How can such titles possibly be remembered in a world full of titles? The answer, it would seem, lies in the non-answer to these questions. A movie simply named after its own characters is making a bold statement: that’s its characters are so memorable, they can afford to be promoted simply by their names.
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is one such character. The star of a simple, urban story he is, unsurprisingly, a quirky fellow, but even within that archetype he is uniquely written and portrayed. Greenberg’s story is shared with that of Florence (Greta Gerwig). Florence is a nanny for Greenberg’s brother’s well-off family. When the family takes a trip to Vietnam both are called in to play a role taking care of the house and its dog.
When we are introduced to Greenberg we are left to wonder why we are invested in him as an individual. He plays the song It Never Rains in California upon meeting Florence and it doesn’t quite resonate with her the way it does with him. Perhaps, in his head, at this moment, he is quirky. Perhaps in his head he’s worthy of the bold mononym Greenberg, but to us he could be any person having a conversation.
However, over the course of the film, Greenberg’s odd-ballness is allowed to bloom. The simplest way to describe him is as curmudgeon, albeit at least 15 years too young for the trope. He is also a young-man trying to find himself, albeit 15 years too old for that trope. Finally he is jealous and bullish, though in the least macho way possible. In short, Greenberg is quirky, but not in a way that can be described with a single adjective or stereotype. His story thus manages to be oddball without being cartoonish.
In essence, to watch Greenberg is to watch a rather subtle accomplishment. Films can be realist simply by virtue of their depicting realistic events: such realism can be relatively effortless. Greenberg, however, is a script that searches the mundane for the absurd and broadcasts if back to us in its original, mundane form. It is rife with imagination, yet never takes us into imagination land.
If there is a downside to films like Greenberg it’s that their subtle pace can make it hard to notice when an important detail has in fact been revealed. It can be hard to know which lines and moments should be viewed with greater attention than other component’s of the characters’ banter. This flaw is of limited importance, however, as the effectiveness of films like Greenberg comes from their character developments not their plot. I may struggle to tell you before long exactly what its story is, but this boldly named film certainly lives up to the high standard it sets for itself.