Ben Stiller certainly isn’t known for his charm. In fact, most of the movies he has starred in have drawn from his grating personality to provide comedic fodder for the plot. It took the directorial genius of Noah Baumbach to ask the question ‘what if we eliminated the funny and just kept all the annoying ticks and irritating personality traits in a Stiller film.’ The result is Greenberg.
Think of the biggest loser you know. Now think of the guy at the party that everyone avoids because he’s constantly teetering on the edge of either crying about his ex-wife or starting a fight with some frat dude. Combine those two people and you have Greenberg’s title character, played without any hint of whimsy or joy by Stiller. Recovering from a nervous breakdown is the type of film fodder that is usually reserved for actors with the emotional range to address seething internal turmoil, but in this case they decided to cast Stiller, which is the on-screen equivalent of trying to cram 45 winos into a clown car – there just isn’t enough room inside for all of the bad smells and shattered dreams.
During the course of an interminable hour and a half, Greenberg awkwardly goes down on an even more awkward au pair, manages to alienate his only remaining friend in the world, bumbles an attempt to hit on the still-married former love of his life and reveals that he broke up a band with the imaginative named Magic Marker. Some viewers might enjoy these ‘slice of life’ movies that take us deep inside the main character’s existence, but with Greenberg it feels like high-diving into the shallow end while on fire. Gravity wants to pull us forward through the hard-as-concrete plot, but the sheer laziness of the story and unappealing nature of almost every character holds us back like ice cleats in a glacier. And the water has been replaced by rubbing alcohol.
I had personally thought that Stiller had given up on serious acting after the succession of films he made where he was trapped in a museum, trapped inside a cargo container with 35 of his in-laws or trapped underneath Owen Wilson at the bottom of a cuddle puddle. It turns out that he was merely waiting for one of the worst scripts ever put to paper, and for a chance to completely exorcise his one, questionable gift – making people laugh – from his bag of performance tricks. Witnessing Greenberg is like witnessing the on-screen death of a friend that you never really liked but who was always around in the background whenever someone took a group photo. An on-screen death that takes 107 minutes. While you are being asphyxiated from behind with a shopping bag.
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