‘Greenberg’: Stiller makes welcome return to acerbic roots

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, March 25, 2010 3:08pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Before he got sidetracked into multiplex stardom, Ben Stiller earned a reputation for biting, satirical work that had a distinctly darkish tone: his sketch comedy show, his performance in “Permanent Midnight,” his directing of “The Cable Guy.”

So his role in the new movie “Greenberg” is not a change in his career, but a return. This small-scaled picture is the kind that sometimes gets called bittersweet, except in this case it’s mostly just bitter.

Fortunately — in no small part because of Stiller’s instinct for comedy — it’s also funny.

“Greenberg” is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose movies “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” established his ability to make you cringe and laugh at the same time. “Greenberg” is much in that vein, although the locale has shifted from East Coast to West.

Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, who’s come to L.A. to house-sit at his brother’s place for a few weeks. Roger’s had some sort of breakdown, and maybe taking care of the dog and relaxing by the pool will help him get it together.

A variety of pitfalls lie in his way: his attraction to his brother’s housekeeper (Greta Gerwig), for one, but also the old wounds carried around by his friends, who felt abandoned when he walked out on their band many years earlier.

Rhys Ifans is especially good as Roger’s closest friend, who puts up with his manchild buddy despite Roger’s thoughtlessness. Baumbach’s wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also co-wrote the film’s story, contributes a short but tart role as an ex-girlfriend with zero interest in revisiting old times.

But most of the movie takes place between Stiller and Gerwig. You might not have heard of her; this is Gerwig’s first mainstream picture, after appearing in a series of ultra-low-budget movies dubbed “mumblecore.”

Gerwig was obviously a movie star from the moment she came onscreen in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” so Baumbach is shrewd in putting her here as a fresh new face. Seeing her naturalistic style next to Stiller’s practiced comic timing is a nicely unpredictable spectacle.

Stiller is terrific, by the way. Roger isn’t particularly likable, and Stiller has to find a way to keep us curious about him — which, with the help of Baumbach’s sharp script and eye for hazy California afternoons, he does.

Given what people said about “Margot,” which I thought was excellent, Baumbach’s acerbic, unsparing style is not for everybody. Fair enough. But this guy is a real “noticer” of human behavior, a job we allot to artists and writers. And sometimes that job ain’t pretty.

“Greenberg” (3 1/2 stars)

Neurotic Ben Stiller is house-sitting in L.A. for a few weeks, where his brother’s housekeeper (Greta Gerwig) and other distractions keep him on edge. This acerbic and funny character study benefits greatly from Stiller’s comic instincts, especially because he plays such a jerk; director Noah Baumbach’s eye for human behavior is just as unsparing as it was in “Margot at the Wedding.”

Rated: R for nudity, language, subject matter

Showing: Guild 45th, Pacific Place

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