Ben Stiller Explores His Dark Side in ‘Greenberg’
It’s not easy to love Roger Greenberg, the latest misanthrope Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) has created as the star of his new comedy. Greenberg, played by a pitch-perfect Ben Stiller, is insufferable: narcissistic, cruel and calculating, and totally oblivious to his shortcomings. That he has friends, much less a doting and very forgiving lover (Greta Gerwig), is nothing short of a miracle.
Perhaps that’s the biggest problem with Greenberg – we simply don’t like the guy. The fact that he’s recently been released from a mental institution only explains so much, and fails to engender sympathy for a man who constantly lashes out at his extremely patient best friend (Rhys Ifans) and treats his girlfriend Florence like garbage.
Greenberg’s madness is summed up here by his obsessive habit of writing letters to all the various companies and organizations that have slighted him. The list is long. He is a man who finds no joy in life, reveling in pointing out the many ways, real and imaginary, that he’s been wronged.
Why would Florence tolerate him? It’s a good question. She sees the vulnerability behind his mask of rage, and sticks with him despite his frequent outbursts, which seem designed largely to humiliate her. She’s too good for him – kind and insecure, and deserving of a civil relationship that’s beyond his capacity.
Greenberg is, in short, a man most people would wish they’d never met, yet Stiller plays him brilliantly. He is manipulative and repulsive but oddly fascinating – far removed from the sympathetic goofs he so often plays in comedies like Meet the Parents and Night at the Smithsonian, yet clearly not far from his comfort zone. He seems to enjoy breaking with his good-guy image and testing the limits of his creepiness.
Baumbach and screenwriting partner Jennifer Jason Leigh give him every opportunity to do just that. Greenberg is an absorbing study of a character most people would rather avoid. The movie itself is compelling in its way – Baumbach’s work usually is – but also oddly repellent. The more we know about Roger, the more we want to get away from him, and it’s hard to understand why the other characters don’t feel the same way, fleeing the screen like Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo.